Get ready for a huge POV creampie as black this bl

Get ready for a huge POV creampie as black this bl
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Chapter Six: Holy Mother Part One: Cataclysm ANGELA The world had fallen away. There was only his consuming lips and tasting tongue, his pressing chest and rubbing crotch, his exploring hands and squeezing fingers.

I gave myself wholly to him, and would've consummated the act without a second thought, but Brandon had the wherewithal to pick me up, and avoid disaster. It had taken him considerable force to separate us, though it felt like most of that force had been exerted on himself. He was breathing heavily, his eyes wild with desire, a desire that had already imprisoned me.

"Take a deep breath." He said, his blue eyes an inch from mine, his lips brushing me as he spoke. I was standing in his tree, and there was a woman beside me. She was curvaceous, but not vulgarly so; her breasts sloped gracefully from her chest, before standing proudly to shadow her flat belly, and her glutes rounded succulently from her thin waist, perched above the smiling crease of her thighs.

She had strawberry-blonde hair and freckled pale skin, but both were a bioluminescent blue in the ethereal light. That woman was me, but I wasn't her. Not yet. I took the air from Brandon's mouth, and my heart decelerated. He reached behind me, and carefully touched his fingers to the nape of my neck.

I felt a pleasant pressure there, then an odd invasion. It crept up my spine, filtered through the base of my skull, and seeped cold euphoria into my brain, lowering my heartrate even more, making me languid and accepting. "You drugged me." I giggled. "I did." Brandon smiled, tugging gently on the vine that had just imbedded itself into my nervous system.

"You didn't need to do that to get what you want." I grinned, biting my lip and shifting my naked hips for him. Brandon couldn't stop himself from grabbing those hips, and forcing my body against him. I moaned my need into his voracious kiss, lifted one leg and wrapped it behind him, undulating my crotch against his. He balled his fists into my hair, and tore my face away. I gasped desperately, mouthing for his oral caress, staring drunkenly into his wild eyes.

He forced his gaze away before he lost himself again, and he touched my chest, my belly, and my back. Glowing vines snaked up my body, and penetrated me where his touch had signaled. They pushed into my belly, meandered beneath the flesh, and attached themselves to my vitals. There was no pain, as the first vine had taken it all, and I only stared in fascination as I was invaded. I didn't know why it turned me on. "Are you ready?" Brandon whispered.

"Do it." I breathed. The last vine pushed through my sternum, and stuck into my heart. Diamond became a part of the tree, and I became nothing once again. I floated out of the body that had been my home for the past three days, and when I looked down at it, I felt a sense of loss.

Diamond's body had been a wonder to occupy, and her mind, even more so. I would miss her. Then I connected eyes with Brandon, and all the melancholy left me. I didn't even register the horror of being bodiless. I only saw him as I floated down, and took what was mine. My ethereal hands slid through the lengths of my arms, my ethereal feet dropped into my new heels, and my ethereal eyes unfocused behind my new retinas, before clarifying.

I took my first breath, and drummed my first heartbeat. Feeling surged into me, the blood pumping through my veins, delivering life to muscles that contracted beneath the flesh, the flesh singing with sensation. The vines that preserved the vessel withdrew, and I stumbled forward, and landed into Brandon's arms. I smelled him with my nose, felt him with my skin, and when I turned my face upward, I tasted him with my tongue.

I was sloppy, unpracticed with my new mouth, but I soon recovered those old instincts, and the memories of the flesh came roaring back. I knew this body. I'd walked in it for ten years. It was older now, and there were differences, but this was mine.

I blinked back my first tears, and I expressed my gratitude, my euphoria, and my love with all the passion I could bring. "Holy shit," I gasped, "I don't have a dick anymore." "Those are your first words?" Brandon laughed into my mouth. "If you suddenly lost your penis, what would you say?" I laughed back. "I'd just go looking for it." Brandon sniggered, "It's been all over town; someone's bound to know where it is." "You slut." I bit his grinning lip. "Oh, here it is," Brandon chuckled, pushing his crotch between my legs, "I left it in my sister." "Oh… fuck." I hissed, breathing heavily.

"What?" Brandon asked. "We're goddamn rednecks!" I exclaimed, "All those city people who used to call us sister-fucking-cow-tippers were right!" "When you're a god, it's just 'keeping the bloodline pure.'" Brandon laughed, undoing his belt.

"No." I whispered on his lips. I pulled his face away so that I could look at it. The soft glow of the bioluminescence played across his features, painting his pointed nose, pronounced chin and high cheeks with a blue tinge, and exaggerating the color of his eyes.

I ran my hand through his strawberry-blonde hair, marveling at the texture of it. God, he looked like me. "What?" Brandon asked.

"Don't try to sugarcoat what we're about to do." I whispered, staring intently into his eyes, "It's wrong on so many levels, Brandon." "Angela, if you-" "And that's what makes it so fucking hot." I gasped, pulling his face to mine, "Dearest brother, I want you to dump a hot load in my box. Let's make retarded babies." "Goddamn it, Angela." Brandon groaned. "Someone tune the banjo; the Sorenson twins are about to fuck." I snickered, and jumped on his crotch, causing the both of us to tumble onto the couch, with me landing straddling his lap.

"What the hell is wrong with you?" Branon growled. "I'm talking dirty, don't you like it?" I giggled, fumbling between his legs to get his pants down. "Your dirty-talk is just as good as your pickup lines." Brandon said, ripping his belt off. "Fucking amazing?" "Comically terrible, and somewhat disturbing." Brandon frowned, pushing his pants around his ankles. "So, perfectly in character." I smiled on Brandon's lips as my hands slid into his boxers. "You are so warped." "My sex education was watching you jack it." I was panting with excitement, "My first sexual experience was eating out a succubus, and my second was living in that succubus's head while she got raped into slavery by her own cousin.

For the past three days, I've been having threesomes with a mother-daughter duo who don't know what 'limits' are, and just yesterday, I became possessed with a gift of ancient evil, sexually tortured my adoptive mother, and was anally-fucked by my biological mother until I came so hard I blew cum into my own mouth." I licked Brandon's lips, "Needless to say, I'm fucked up. But you know what the weirdest thing is?" "After all that, no, actually." "I'm still a virgin." I giggled, and yanked Brandon's boxers off.

His cock sprang upward, and waggled stiffly between us. His tip was level with my navel, his girth was greater than my closed fist, and he was hard as a rock. The heat of it radiated onto the flat of my pelvis from an inch away, and the tip was weeping with his desire. I knew he was big, I'd seen him before, but with it right in front of me, and staring me in the eye, I realized just how impressive he was. I had prepared a funny line to say in this exact situation, but I… I just… I just couldn't remember it… "Angela Sorenson, rendered speechless." Brandon chuckled softly, "How flattering." "I guess my dirty-talk wasn't so bad after all." I managed, trying to hide my growing anxiety.

"There's nothing you could say that wouldn't make me want you." Brandon said, his hands sliding up my thighs, "It just has to be you who says it." "That was almost smooth, Brandon." "Don't hide from me." Brandon said, his hands slowing when they reached their destination, and gripping the naked fat of my backside.

"I'm scared." I confessed with a whisper, looking at Brandon as a curtain of strawberry-blonde hair fell over my forehead, and concealed one coy eye.

"Did you just do that on purpose?" Brandon asked. "No, why?" "It was the sexiest thing I've ever seen." Brandon's voice was thick, and his gripping hands squeezed me until his fingers were lost in the pliable meat. A current of sensation ran up my spine, and I felt the new arousal of my body surge forward. My petals flushed and dripped, my clitoris engorged, my insides ached and saturated with need.

Without thinking, I raised myself by the knees, stretching back, my belly striating with the subtle outline of muscles, my breasts shadowing them generously. I hovered my virgin crease over him, and felt his rigid heat brush the wet folds of me. Electric signals ran traffic through my body, making me quiver from head to toe from just the slightest touch. "You bastard." I moaned down at him. "Do you like it?" Brandon grinned guiltily up at me, "I added a couple extra billion nerves to… certain parts of you." "I'm custom-made just for you, huh?" I laughed breathily, my anxiety ratcheting with my want, my heart thundering against my breastbone.

"You are," Brandon guided me forward, his tip parting my petals, "which is why it won't hurt, Angela. You don't have to be afraid." "I'm not scared of pain; I like pain." I whispered, "I'm terrified that it won't change anything." I brought my hand forward, and watched as my ethereal fingers exited the physical ones with ease. I was wearing this body, and if I didn't bind to it, it would fall away from me like cheap clothing. "I don't know how any of this shit works, but I know what I feel." Brandon said softly, "All I can do is hope that you feel the same." I reached back, and placed my hands atop his.

I brought them forward, and linked fingers with him. We stared into each other's identical eyes, seeing the mirrors of our genders, our expressions the same. Fear, desire, trust. Love. It was forbidden, it was unnatural, it was abhorrent, but it was true.

"You're a sick fuck, Brandon." I whispered. "You're a twisted slut, Angela." Brandon whispered back. We shared a smile, and I dropped. He ran through me, parted my channel, stretched me to my limit, then stopped at my bottom.

A gasp tore from my lips, my body froze in paralytic shock, my eyes bulged. His invasion was molten, radiating heat into my virgin flesh, his girth pressing and stretching me, his length invading my sanctity, spearing into my abdomen. The loss of my chastity echoed through my nethers, then dwindled with my passing heartbeats.

I stayed still and rigid for a moment longer, and we stared at each other. We'd done it. The forbidden, unnatural, abhorrent thing had happened. It couldn't be undone, and it couldn't be washed away. We were degenerates now. I grinned at him, and he grinned back.

Then I shifted slightly, and the stirring of my womanhood sent a bolt of searing pleasure right into my brain, and my static straddle turned to a back-drooping arch, the deepening bow accompanied with a drawn-out growl of pure hedonism. Goddamn. Goddamn! GODDAMN! "Goddamn!" I hissed through gritted teeth. "What?!" Brandon asked, alarmed.

I looked up at him through strands of blonde hair, my eyes topping my whites drunkenly. "You've ruined me, Brandon." I whispered, my breath heated, becoming desperate, "You fucking asshole." Brandon's face relaxed into a self-satisfied smile.

"That good, huh?" he smirked, "Don't worry, Angela; you're not the first woman to have a life-altering experience from sitting on my magnificent… goddamn. Goddamn! Oh, goddamn, Angela!" "What?" I smiled through gaping lips that expired my pleasure.

I rolled my hips behind me, driving my pelvis forward with my clenching abs, then sliding back with the deepening arch of my spine. My pussy smeared it's delight across Brandon's crotch, massaged him with the rolling contractions of my inner muscles, and pulled him to his limit with the suction of my clinging lips.

I pinned his hands beside his head, our fingers still linked, and I grinned into his stupefied face as my hair tickled his cheeks. "Your no virgin!" Brandon gasped. "Am too." I sniggered back, moaning through my laughter. "Anal counts as sex, and I don't care who says otherwise!" "Poop-hole loophole." "Is every gay man a virgin then?" Brandon moaned.

"I don't know, Brandon." I whispered on his lips, "You tell me." Brandon narrowed his eyes. "Who fucking talked?" "You left your office window open." I snickered, outlining his lips with my tongue, squeezing his cock with my pussy, "And Valkyries are such terrible gossipers." "Astrid, that bitch!" "Not Astrid." I giggled, trapping Brandon with my thighs.


"Jade!" Brandon gasped, his strong chin tilting in pleasure. I gnawed on it, grinning mischievously as I rocked back and forth, watching his eyes glaze with pleasure. "Not Jade." I whispered, licking his cleft. "Not…" "Yes." I licked my way to his lips, and stopped to smirk at him, "Bianca told me everything. You sure you don't want to retrofit me with extra parts? I really like this clit you gave me, but if it makes you happy…" And Brandon had me on my back, his weight suppressing me, his hips driving.

I screamed my exhilaration, spreading my legs wide, my toes curling in their airborne positions. He hammered through me, smashing into my pubis, striking my cervix with each brutal thrust, the impacts coercing some hidden pleasure from my erogenous depths. My elastic entrance stretch around him, letting me feel him enter me from taint to clit, then burrow within to compel more intimate delights.

His chest squished my breasts between us, his breath was hot on my lips. I wrapped my arms around his neck, and drove my tongue into his mouth. His lips consumed fiercely, his nose exhaling his short breaths beside mine, his tongue entangled in ardent combat as our bodies heaved in congruence. I reached behind him, trailed my middle finger teasingly down his back, ran it between his cheeks, and pushed into his favorite hole.

I grinned against his lips as I felt him get heated, thrusting against me with a purpose, trying to pulverize my dainty body from the inside and out. I broke from our kiss with a gasp, drawing deep breaths into my lungs so that I could exalt my joy.

My finger writhed within him encouragingly, and he growled, slid his hands under my ass, spread me, and pushed two fingers from each into my filth. "Fuck you, Brandon!" I snarled, pivoting my heels against the couch's back so that I could perform a horizontal squat, and take his fingers deeper. "Yeah," Brandon laughed breathily against my neck, "I put extra nerves here too. A lot of them." "You wanna fuck your twin sister in the ass, you low-life piece of shit?!" I cried, the smile gone from my lips, only the pleasured oval of my gaping mouth.

"Eventually," Brandon growled in my ear, "how does my whore-sister like my fingers stretching her little shithole?" "Stretch it more, you faggot!" I snarled back, bucking against him, my waving body a violent oscillation. Brandon complied, prying his invading fingers until the sweet sting sung its heinous song through my depths, mingling with the chorus of pleasures that ratcheted through my cunt.

"I'm telling Mom what you called me." Brandon said into my mouth. "I'm telling Dad first." I gasped against his lips. "Dad always takes Mom's side." "We'll see whose side he take after I deep-throat the old man!" I hissed.

"Holy fuck, Angela!" "That's exactly what this is." I gasped. "You went too far!" Brandon seethed as he ravaged me. "You're not going far enough! Deeper, Dearest Brother, deeper!" With a lock of my legs, and twist of my abdomen, I spun us until I was straddled atop him once again. He pushed another finger from each hand into me, and stretched, causing my back to dive into an arch, my belly to press to his, and my shoulders to pinch together.

I drove my pelvis against him, removed my encouraging finger, and grasped the sides of his head so that I could eat his mouth. Then he had me against the wall, driving so hard it felt like he was trying to break me through it.

I squealed with every thrust, inhaling with desperate pants, my face flushed, my body slick with sweat. I locked my legs around his waist and clung to his shoulders, crying out with every breath, hugging him internally with his every retreat. His heart was hammering against mine, his breath was exerted and short, his thrusts were reaching a crescendo. He still held me from the inside, gaping me, kneading his fingertips into my taught filth as he pummeled me from the other side.

It was getting to me now; a pressure that seemed to ache with pleasure, a feeling that built, and built. I couldn't cry out anymore. I only had enough voice in my chest to gasp and wheeze, my neck striating with the tension of my throat, my chest burning. "Come inside me." I whispered into Brandon's ear, and his hips blasted, accelerating to a fervency, driving me against the bark-covered wall.

My pussy drooled down the convulsing bridge of my holes, both channels wracked with spasms; fluttering and contract, seizing around all invasions, trying to take them deeper. Brandon panted against my cheek, his tone that of rutting beast, long past sanity.

I lost myself with him, becoming the twisting body of reaction, the writhing dancer of sensation. My hands turned to claws against his back, the nails digging into his shoulders. My eyes shut tightly, and I pressed my cheek to his chest, clinging on for dear life, whimpering as the feeling ravaged me.

I was helpless to it, a slave and a victim, and it showed no mercy. My breath caught, my body seized, and I was trapped in the moment of excruciating ecstasy. Brandon shared it, growing rigid, unable to make a sound. Then the wave crashed upon us, and he erupted into my depths as I found my voice, and exalted to the ceiling.

White energy shot from him, swirled around us in a vortex, and consumed the room. Shapes appeared in the sapphire currents; images of dolphins leaping from waves, of birds diving into canyons, of trees sprouting and growing to giants above sparse plains. My sexual climax dwindled, but a new crescendo rose.

It was an exhilaration, a feeling of energy that raged in my veins. Brandon pressed his mouth to mine, and we stared wide-eyed into each other through the kiss, the feeling firing through our synapses, flashing, blinding, then… done. The energy dissipated, and with it, our strength. Brandon lowered us weakly, and I slid down the wall, before falling into a spineless sprawl on the floor. Our mouths stayed connected, the passion boiling, then simmering, then calming.

We parted with a harmony of gasps, then looked down. My body was covered from foot to neck in white patterns. They were of animals and plants, the lines contouring to every curve of me, impossible in their intricacy. A wolf howled on my shoulder, a lioness stalked a buffalo on my thigh, a whale swam beneath the reflection of the moon on one of my breasts. There were hundreds of other scenes on my body, from the soles of my feet, to the tips of my fingers, each one flowing with the curves of my form, and separated by patterns of foliage and water.

As the light dimmed to its normal radiance, I noticed that it was tinged slightly green. Brandon created a butterfly, and its ghostly shell shined with the same green tint, before it dimmed to reveal the creature beneath. The monarch floated lazily about the room, and settled on a stalk of milkweed growing in the window.

"Congratulations, Bound One." Brandon whispered, "You're alive." "Oh my god." I said quietly, the enormity of it only allowing a small sound from my throat.

I was alive. I had a body, and it was mine, and it was flesh and blood and soul like it was supposed to be. I touched the tips of my fingers to my thumb, and realized that I couldn't remember what it felt like to feel nothing.

All those of years of floating between life and death felt like bad dream that was already fading from memory. "I love you." Brandon said quietly. "I love you." I replied. It was strange how little the phrase meant to me.

For most couples, the speaking of those three words was a landmark moment in their relationship, but for me, it seemed like we were just speaking the obvious. "Now…" Brandon sighed, then groaned as he sat upright, "what the hell do we tell Mom and Dad?" "We don't; problem solved." I laughed.

Brandon did not share my mirth. His blue eyes were narrowing as they focused on the butterfly in the window. I looked inquisitively at the insect, wondering what Brandon was curious about. Then I saw the cityscape behind the butterfly, and the sapphire light that illuminated the clouds on the horizon. "Did we do that?" I asked. Brandon didn't respond. Then I felt it. A rush of cool wind blowing through the canopy of the arboretum, followed by the sound of thunder.

But it wasn't thunder. It was the flapping of wings. Thousands of them. Millions of them. The birds flew overhead, cawing and screeching, moving in one direction, and at an incredible pace. "Brandon, did you make those?" I asked, trying to keep the concern from my words.

"No." Brandon said in a hushed voice. He was shaking. "What?" I asked, "Brandon, what…" then I saw it. The sapphire that lit up the distant clouds was brighter than ever, creating silhouettes of the stone towers before it.

Then it wasn't just light. It was a sun. Its radius was miles wide already, and growing; an expanding blue orb, silently consuming the thinning silhouettes before it, and birthing a great impulse of debris that preceded its growth.

The wave shot across the landscape, levelling buildings, outdistancing its infernal parent, bearing down on us with frightening speed. I plastered myself to Brandon, my heart galloping in my chest, mortal fear singing its true horror in every part of my mind.

The wave traveled across the estate, blew out the windows in Julia's temple, pulsed across the grassy mall, and slammed into the arboretum. Then, there was sound. A roar that vibrated in my skull, ruptured my eardrums and burst the vessels in my eyes. The trees of the arboretum flexed and bent, then tore from their roots.

An enormous baobab upended and crashed into the courtyard below, another slammed into our maple. We were tossed against the wall, our bodies pinned by some great wind, the maple flexing in the throes of its battle. The sun was getting bigger. I could feel the heat of it now, and even when I closed my eyes, I could see its light through my lids.

I reached out blindly, and felt a hand grab mine. Through teary slits, I saw my brother. He was looking at me, his body buffeted by the infernal gale, his face peeled back with the force of it. I think he tried to say something, but I couldn't hear. Then, I couldn't see. The light became so great that it seemed to infiltrate the backs of my eyes.

The world became an image of high-contrast, where Brandon's features were just the black shadows of a white ocean, then it was just white. Then it was nothing. I was blind. I was blind, and deaf, and pinned to the wall by the pressure of a sun that was being born on earth. I could feel myself perspiring despite the wind, I could feel the sting of the inferno, then I could feel the drops of sweat evaporating like steam.

Through it all, I held Brandon, and he held me, our hands tight in their grasp, telling each other that we weren't alone in the horror of the end. Then, there was another. A strong arm wrapped around me, and another around Brandon, and we were hoisted together upward.

Cool air touched my flesh, a free breeze caressed my face, and I screamed into the wind. I was deaf and blind, unable to see my savior, nor hear my euphoria, but it didn't matter. I was alive. I. Was. Alive. JUSTINA "I cannot feel my face, yet I am not alarmed; should I be alarmed that I am not alarmed?" Jade mused.

I was in the commons area of Julia's temple, where the two-thousand Breytan warriors lounged and moved with exaggerated lethargy. Those who hadn't succumbed to the sleep of Sara's opium were stoned out of their minds, Jade amongst them. "Just relax, Jade." I replied. "That certainly isn't difficult." Jade chuckled tiredly, "What sickness did you say this is?" "Dopasomnan; it's a cerebral infection that targets your dopamine receptors." I lied.

I wasn't sure exactly how Lucilla wanted to play this, so I refrained from telling Jade she was poisoned by her allies. "A brain infection." Jade nodded, "That would explain the auditory hallucinations." "That shouldn't be one of your symptoms." I frowned. "Is that so? Well then, can you hear that?" Jade asked me.

I cocked my head and listened. It was a low buzzing, then it was a rumble, then a stampede overhead. It sounded like a great migration of birds was flying above us, but it was summer. "Must be Brandon." I muttered. Then there was another sound. It was a deep sound, a feeling in my chest more than anything. Jade looked at me, and I looked at her.

The sound approached at breakneck speed, growing louder, deeper, shaking the temple's foundation with its force. My teeth chattered, my eyes blurred, my skull felt like it was splitting with noise.

The roar reached its deafening crescendo, then went silent. No, not silent. There was a high ringing in my ears, and when I touched my hand to my ear, there was blood. Without any noise to match the action, the great metals doors of the commons blasted open, splattering the women in their circular path, and giving entrance to a mighty wind that shattered the window directly across from it.

I could actually see the air moving through the wind tunnel between the door and window, then I saw what the air brought with it. Glass shot through the medium like horizontal hail, slicing the Breytan warriors to pieces.

They screamed silently, clawing desperately for something to hold onto, their bodies losing parts until they finally lost their grips, and disappeared into the wind of sharp edges. Their feathers, viscera and limbs flattened against the wall surrounding the blown-out window, creating a frame of horror.

Blood traveled like writhing veins outward from the frame, the tendrils compelled to snake by the driving air. The lucky Breytans had been in the protection of the western wall when the wind hit, and they stared in abject horror as their sisters were blended into the current, screaming silently by, too many of them still alive, too many horrible realizations carved across recognizable faces.

Then we saw the light. It was behind us and obscured by the wall, but we could see it growing brighter, casting shortening shadows upon the mall outside. Jade grabbed me, and pushed me along the wall, not daring to step from it lest we get caught in the lethal current of sharp edges. All the Breytans in the commons area followed us, trying to mold themselves against the metal surface.

We were the lucky survivors, but some were luckier than others. One woman's head was smashed to jelly by a flying shield. One woman panicked and attempted to take flight, only to get caught in the wind that ran traffic through the temple's corridors. She tried to flap back against the wall, but her wings were nothing but bones with dangling gore, and soon after, her body was nothing but separated arms and legs, added to the window frame.

It was getting lighter outside, well past the point of daytime. The wall that was our salvation was beginning to get hot. We all shuffled along its surface, following the High Guard as she plodded her course through the temple. It was getting brighter. The wall was getting hotter. Jade moved faster, daring to lift a shoulder from the wall, and brave the current of sharp edges. I stayed flat against the wall until it was unbearable, then I squared myself behind her, and ran.

Soon, we were all running. My small frame allowed me to stay out of the wind's way, but the Breytans had wings, and many weren't as fortunate. One by one their bodies betrayed them, the wind catching their feathers and hauling them into the blender, turning the proud warriors into mist.

Decades of memories, of experiences, of love and hate and a perspective wholly unique, all culminating to three seconds of horror and agony.

But I couldn't think about that. The wall was so hot that I couldn't even be near it anymore. I gave it a foot of berth, and silently hoped that Jade would catch any shrapnel that went our way. I could smell cooking flesh, and I knew some of the Breytans had refused to leave the wall's protection. It was so bright that the world had become one of black and white contrast. Now, I could feel the heat in the air. It was a dry heat, like that of an oven, and I was terribly aware that the steel temple had become just that.

We were sprinting now, hunched forward, staring without seeing. I periodically dared a hand against the wall just to make sure I was close enough to it, and I took Jade's belt in my other hand.

The woman behind me grabbed my tail to keep her direction, then her hand was a weight on me, and I knew that was all that was left of her. I was blind. The world was white. I shut my eyes, but it was still just white. And hot. So hot. My feet burned against the metal floor, the calluses singed away, the pink flesh beneath tortured with every footfall. My back was burning. My shoulders were burning. I hunched against it, screaming, screaming, screaming. Then, sweet blackness.

Sweet cold. I tumbled down a flight of stairs, not caring that I bruised and battered myself along the way. I collapsed into the familiar arms of Jade Tao, and I wept. ASTRID The uplift of air from the sun caught my wings, letting me hover above it without flapping. I was high above the clouds, and the shockwave had opened them beneath me, presenting a circular window with which to view Armageddon.

The great sapphire ball grew steadily, consuming the metropolis. It looked like a slow process from so high in the air, but my binocular vision revealed that the infernal circumference was expanding entire city blocks in a second.

No one was fast enough to get out; not Brandon, not Justina, not Diamond, and not Mistress. Not Willowbud. I prayed that Angela was safe from the Heat Bringer's fire. I vainly prayed for all the people I'd just named lost, for there was the slightest chance of hope, but one person was surely dead, as evidenced by the color of her lover's infernal wrath. Lucilla Flitari had passed from the world, and the world would pay for her passing. "Justina." Tera whimpered against my chest.

She'd come to me when I walked alone through the tunnel, my mother's body draped in my arms. Then I felt the rumbling beneath my feet, and I picked Tera up, and launched us in the air.

Were I not Ionan, I doubted I could've out-flown the great mass of air that precluded the flame. The shockwave turned Mistress's temple to dust, imploded Julia's cathedral, and uprooted Brandon's arboretum, then the fire came to erase what it's forerunner had left. In my white-knuckled flight, I hadn't even realized I still held my mother's body.

My arms was locked around it like a vice, and it took considerable effort to relax the muscles, and let her fall. She descended gracefully from the heavens, her eyes staring back, a look of peace behind their lenses. Her lifeless wings caught the wind and spread one last time, then she was lost in the fire.

May your ashes fly on the Heat Bringer's wind for eternity. I shielded my eyes from the earthbound sun, pulled Tera tight against me, and flew away. She wept into my bosom, but I was done weeping. It was not for lack of grief, but simply because there was so much to grieve for, that I didn't know where to start.

Instead, I focused on the positives; I was High Guard of Iona now. My deserved birthright had finally come to pass, and all it had cost me, was everything. My god was dead, my mother was dead, and the world was on fire. I smiled bitterly to myself. Mistress would think this was hilarious. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Interlude One: Tell Me Your Story PETRANUMEN The Untethered One was trying to make herself small in the armchair, but I was no threat to her.

Now that the worst had happened, I did not feel compelled to send her away. I had been torn from my meld, and our separation had done incalculable damage in both worlds. I slid my fingertips against the window, watching the faces pass me. It had been long since I wept for the souls I could not save.

Now their perplexed portraits only deepened the pit of Guilt, like a dull spade digging into me, scraping muscle from bone. The wall between me and oblivion was fracturing; the thing they called 'Corruption.' The valley floor had crumbled and fallen to the abyss, leaving only the spires to hold the realms apart, and I could feel cracks forming in the columns.

Not much time. Not much time at all. "Where do they go?" I echoed the words Vitanimus had said all those epochs ago, "Why do they go?" I was not asking Diamond, but she answered anyway. "To heaven?" she asked quietly, her voice shaking with fear. I smiled at that. What a curious creature this daughter of Passion was.

Tear tracks marred her pristine portrait, fear tinged her emerald eyes, but there was an undeniable spirit in her. "We are in heaven, Diamond." I sighed, sitting on the bed, "This is what it was supposed to be before the worlds broke." "What do you mean by that?" Diamond asked, holding the Maternal Path against her chest like a shield.

"Mind and matter used to be one." I said, looking at my reflection in the window, "What you call 'the astral plane' was once a part of the physical world." "How did the worlds break?" I didn't answer, but watched the faces go by in the window. There were fewer now. They still came continuously, but the cataclysm was done, and the great herd it had created had faded into the nothing. Where did they go?

Why did they go? That question was Diamond's answer, but I did not want to give it to her. "Please tell me… God." Diamond said, her voice small. "Do not call me that." I said with equal smallness. "Then what I should I call you?" "The first ones of language called me Petranumen." I muttered.


The name meant as little to me as 'Chaos' or 'Corruption.' It was a label, a simplification to the point of deception. "Please tell me, Petranumen." "Why?" I asked, "You have completed your mission, Untethered One. You and your mother have torn me from Willowbud, and damned me to this eternity. Why should I give you more?" "I was just trying to help." Diamond said, curling her knees up before her, "I didn't know who you were.

Please tell me your story." "You are holding my story." I scowled. "You said it's a lie." "And I would like to keep it that way." I muttered. Diamond nodded and stood, still holding the Maternal Path against her. She took five shaking steps across the floor, then strode through the threshold without a look back.

"Wait." I whispered. She stopped, and turned slowly around. I always thought pride was a foolish emotion, but it infected me nonetheless. Sentient life emitted pride like a miasma, and it saturated the walls of my kingdom like chitin.

I would be relieved when an abomination finally took the mantle of Pride, and removed it from me, but there was no such creature yet, so my pride had compelled me to gamble with loneliness, and the Untethered One had called my bluff. I was never much of a liar. "Only if you tell me your true story." Diamond answered. I nodded, and she came back, and I could not conceal the relieved smile that stretched across my face. She sat across from me in the chair, and waited expectantly.

I cleared my throat, and began. "I began life as a thought. I was an idea that sprouted from the virgin soils of sentience at the dawn of man, and the awakening of worlds. I was wild like my mothers and fathers, who thundered across the planes with spears in hand, but without language in their mouths. We were pure. Our hearts beat to rhythms that echoed in the mountains, that drummed in canyons and whispered across plateaus.

We were children. The world was brutal, dark, and untamed, and it was innocent. They did not have a name for me, as titles and labels were still things of the future, but to say they revered me would not be an overstep.

For the world of my parents was governed by the prison of rock, and that governance was ever-present in their minds, and so I was born of it, the manifestation of earth itself. You can call me 'Elemental,' but to them, I was a liberator. I could turn unpassable fjords into plateaus, and unassailable mountains into passes, and my parents, those who had been slaves to the contours and epochs of time and stone, were set free. From their cages they went, venturing into new lands.

Lands of forest and jungle, and life, where new thoughts rode the winds of cognizance; thoughts of creation, of progress, and of destiny. His thoughts. That is where I found him, another like me. He was wild like I was, untamed, unbridled and beautiful. He created herds with a wave of his hand, filled the sky with a blow of his lips, and raised forests with a click of his heels.

Our people mingled and merged, not creating a hierarchy, but learning of each other, understanding each other. His people had hooves and horns, antlers and claws, and mine were of brawn and build, distance and strength.

We did not define the races as you do, but realized our sameness more than our differences. There were eyes and noses with which to see and smell, ears and mouths to listen and to taste, and skin to touch and feel… to touch and feel.

I had never known the senses that compelled my parents, for I was an idea. My interaction came through the medium of other ideas; the idea of water, the idea of sun, and the idea of wind. The worlds were one, yes, but I was a prisoner to the higher plane, just as my parents had been prisoners to the ridges and cliffs of our homeland. He set me free. For upon our meeting of smiles and stares, he dared a hand on my shoulder, and my breath… my breath caught!

I had never known breath, but it surged into my lungs, filling deliciously before the cadence of my newfound heartbeat. And I felt the sweet caress of his palm on my flesh, and the sensation was overwhelming. I ran away, feeling grass and rock beneath my soles, feeling wind across my nudity and exhilaration in my chest. I had thought I'd known joy before, but it was a lie. I screamed the primal joy of life with my mothers and fathers, and rejoiced with them. That night, our people danced as we were meant to; before the roar of a great fire, beneath the blanket of stars.

Their silhouettes shifted with the thunder of drums, and their bodies spoke with greater understanding than their tongues ever could. My eyes met his across the blaze, and I smiled. Then I vanished into the woodlands, giggling with the knowledge of what was to come. I was bathing in a stream. The moonlight touched the calm water with a dazzling of white light, and it reflected upon my flesh in pastel patterns.

They danced like aqueous snakes along the long column of my neck, between the ample protrusion of my bust, over the flat of my belly, and down the soft lines of my pelvis.

My white hair and eyes marked me as an Elemental, the pale smoothness of my flesh spoke of youth, and the blush of my cheeks and nethers betrayed my desire. He was watching me from the bushes, as pale and white-haired as I was, with a face carved by the hand of some master, and a body chiseled with the same care. He had a tail that wrapped about one muscular thigh, and between that thigh and the other, I saw his want. It was the first time I had ever felt embarrassment. Never had I been ashamed of my body, but I had never used it as a woman.

The fear heightened the excitement, and the motions I made turned libidinous with instinct. I let my hands trail down my chest, let the palms slope the glistening domes, and the fingertips brush each pink, wet nipple.

The nodes were swollen and erect, bouncing tenderly from the graze of my fingers as my hands rounded the bottoms of my breasts, then outlined the soft rises of muscle about my navel.

I tilted my head skyward, letting the moonlight shower my form as my hands drifted lower. I could feel him walking toward me, compelled to me by the lithe shifts of my dance. My back arched to jut my breasts in greeting, to deepen the bow above the wet domes of my backside, shining succulently halfway from the water.

His breath was on the nape of my neck, and his hands were on my forearms. They were strong hands, long-fingered and graceful, and they slid down my arms until they met my wrists.

I tilted my face to taste his breath, and I molded my back to him to feel his hardness. It slid between the crack of me, the tip running against my aperture, then sliding between my folds. He guided me to open my legs with his hands, and asked me to empty myself with his kiss. I did, and he pushed himself inside of me.

The pain of my chastity caused me to gasp, but I was compelled to accept his invasion. I opened my legs wider as blood pooled between them, and he pushed himself deeper until he touched the entrance to my fertility. We stayed there for a moment, our gazes locked in wonder. It was then that I understood pleasure. I was awakened to a new side of myself, and that side knew the dances of lust. My glutes pillowed wetly against his pelvis, my shoulders sloped to curve the vulnerable bow of my neck, and I undulated softly, swaying with his hips, grinding myself against him.

I moaned the primal joy of my violation into his mouth, and he groaned his desire into mine. My flower opened and dripped nectar down my thighs, my breaths were molten in my chest, and my muscles wilted in the heat of his passion.

It was not long before I could hardly stand, and my moans were whines and cries. Then it came to me, the climax of our meeting, and I understood what it meant to know ecstasy. The radiation of him within me, the girth of him stretching the lips of my sex, the length of him threatening me where I was weakest. He lifted one of my legs to bend outward from the hip, and I lifted both arms to link fingers behind his neck.

His breath was my breath, his gaze, my gaze, and our tones harmonized as we moved in the first mating of immortals." I stopped my story to look inquisitively at the Untethered One.

"I did not think a daughter of Passion would be bashful with her arousal." I mused. "I guess some of Mom's religion got through to me." Diamond smiled nervously, "I wasn't expecting you to give me so many… details." "Why would I skip the details of sex?" I asked, confused, "Is it not what compels so much of your life? Why would I recount a tale of lovers, then not describe the nature of their love making?" "I'm not complaining." Diamond shrugged insecurely. "You are concealing your erection with the Maternal Path." I frowned, "I am not sure if that is horribly blasphemous, or a perfect symbol of religious sexual oppression.

Are you creating art?" Diamond laughed, and it was a sweet, innocent, unbridled sound. It put a smile on my face, then a weight in my chest.

I closed my eyes and breathed out through my nose, trying to quell the feeling, trying to bury it deep. It was getting harder. I could feel the spires groaning under the weight, a threatening creak echoing in the void where rock used to connect the uplifts.

Any minute now. "You have returned my daughter to Hatred." I said. Diamond's smile faded. "Yes." Diamond replied softly, her body beginning to curl on itself, losing any lust it had displayed. "Hatred still remembers something of what she was." I muttered, "Maybe that is what makes it hurt so much." Another weight in my chest, and another moment of alarm as I felt it pass through Corruption. "We were so wrong about you." Diamond said carefully, "All the theories we were so sure of were false." "You were closer than most." I replied, then caught Diamond's inquisitive gaze, "No, you are not the first to seek the missing pieces of the puzzle.

Anyone who looks closely enough can see that the story of the world is incomplete." Diamond didn't respond. It was obvious that she wanted to know about Hatred, but she would not dare ask. I cleared my throat, surprised to feel that it had closed with imminent grief. "Upon our climax, he and I experience a surge of power. It came within us both, and from us both.

We had bound our souls together, and marked the flesh of the other with our sign." I stopped my tale, and considered. "Before I continue, I must explain what Vitanimus called, 'the trichotomy of self.'" "Who's Vitanimus?" Diamond asked.

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"It was the name the first of language gave to the Elemental of Life." I answered, "There are three parts to a person, each one able to interact with its own plane of existence. The body is the vessel for the mind, and it interacts with the physical plane. The mind is the vessel for the soul, and it interacts with the cognitive plane.

In this regard, the world was never truly one, for the spiritual plane was a mystery to both Vitanimus and I. We did not even know there was such a thing as a 'soul' until ours were bound, and we felt the immeasurable power that joining brought. And the product of that joining, was her. My daughter. My… joy. Before language marred our mouths, that was all she was to me, so that is what we will call her. And as the mating of two bodies creates a third, so does the binding of two Elemental spirits, for Joy was of water, like I am of rock, and he was of life." "But…" Diamond trailed off, her brow knitting in confusion, "she was the Heat Bringer." "No." I whispered, closing my eyes and waiting, waiting for the moment this whole charade came crashing down.

I could feel the columns of Corruption creaking and groaning, but they mercifully ceased. When I opened my eyes, Diamond was peering into them, concern touching her face. "What's happening to you?" She asked softly. "You know." I said, easing myself back, "You have seen it." "What happens when Corruption fails?" Diamond asked, a pool of fear in her eyes.

"Evolution." I answered, an ocean of it in mine. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Part Two: Ash JULIA I'm sitting alone at the table.

All around me are the other elven children; laughing, yelling, crying and playing, but I am silent. I poke at my soup with my spoon. It's cold, but I won't heat it up. I'll never use my fire again. I've been here for two months, but I'm still the new girl. I haven't spoken a word the entire time. Everyone thinks I'm a mute, and that's fine with me. Being a bright-elf and five years old means I'm shorter than everyone else, and everyone else seems like scary giants.

They wouldn't be scary if they weren't strangers, but I'm too scared of them to know them, so they stay strangers. Nobody bothers me. At the princess's estate, the nuns make sure the orphans are well-fed and well-behaved, but nobody approaches me. Orphans understand that it's every child for themselves, even if we're taken care of. We know deep down that it won't last.

Nothing good ever has for us. Blackening faces, melted eyes, voices screeching. "Hey, you're Looney Junie!" a giggling voice says.

I look up from my curtain of crimson bangs to see a high-elf, porcelain skin and rosy cheeks, eyes a little too big for her childish face. She's maybe two years older than me, and she is dressed like royalty.

The princess. I don't know how to act for her. She usually plays with the older orphans, much to the chagrin of her tutors, who don't want her to socialize with those of low class. But even at such a young age, Princess Flitari runs the show here, which means she can do whatever she wants, including talk to me, much to my horror. I simply nod, not daring to correct her. If she wants to call me 'Junie,' then my name is 'Junie.' "Julia!" Mother screams.

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She's unrecognizable. I just want her to be still, to stop writhing and shrieking. "Do you know why they call you 'Looney Junie?" Princess Flitari asked, climbing onto the chair across from me.

I shake my head, and stare fixedly at my soup. "Because you're bleepin' crazy, that's why!" She giggles, then snaps her fingers, and a servant rushes forward.

"I want chocolate cake!" Princess Flitari demands, "And I want one for Looney Junie too!" The servant bows his head, and scampers off.

I poke at my soup, hoping and praying that the princess will lose interest in me before her meal arrives. I don't want chocolate cake. I don't want anything but solitude. They won't stop screaming.

They won't stop twisting so horribly. I can't fix it; I just want to end it. Mommy… Daddy… "Well, aren't you going to say, 'thank you?'" Princess Flitari asks. I nod, and she giggles. "You really are crazy, huh?" She laughs. I nod again, not wanting to disagree with her. The ripples of my soup dissipate, and I see my face dimly reflected in it.

My crimson bangs are a mess over my eyes, my eyes are puffy from sleepless nights, and my lips are red and chapped from constantly licking them. I don't know when I picked up that habit. They're finally still, but they're staring at me.

Staring accusingly from blank sockets. They're hardly people anymore. Just crisps with arms and legs. Mommy… Daddy… I can't bear to see them like this. I explode. "Sebastian told me you ran to the reservoir yesterday and just jumped in!" Princess Flitari laughs, "It's thirty feet up, you looney! Are you trying to kill yourself?!" I shake my head for the first time.

The nuns taught me that suicide is a sin, and I would never want to betray the Holy Mother. She's my only mother now. Mommy used to have a painting of her on the mantle. Besides Mommy, the Holy Mother was the prettiest girl in the world. She had white hair like an old lady, but soft skin, a kind face, and wise, powerful eyes that matched the hue of her hair. That painting was ash now, ash like Mommy and Daddy, but the Holy Mother couldn't be hurt by my fire.

She's watching over me, making sure I'm OK. She can't hold me like Mommy could, and she can't speak to me like Mommy could, but I can feel her. Every time the bad feelings come, and the fire wants to burn, I whisper to her, and I feel her calming touch in the back of my mind.

I mentally whisper to her now, praying to make the princess go away. I just want to be alone. "Then why'd you do it, ya looney?" Princess Flitari laughs. Because I saw a lady who looked like Mommy, and when I realized it wasn't her, could never be her, I wanted the whole world to burn, and even the Holy Mother couldn't stop me.

So, I jumped into water. I just shake my head, and stir my soup, distorting my reflection. The servant comes back with two dishes of chocolate cake, one slice noticeably larger than the other and plated on fine china, the other stuffed into a soup bowl.

The servant gives me my undeserved dessert, and Princess Flitari her unusual lunch. I don't eat it, but continue to swirl my soup, creating little vortexes in the opaque, cream medium. Princess Flitari gluttonously chows on her cake, smearing brown frosting across her lips, looking incredibly un-royal.

She finishes with a mighty belch, then wipes her face on her silken sleeve, nonchalantly ruining a garment that is worth more than everything I used to own. "Everyone thinks you're a mute, but you know what I think?" Princes Flitari leans forward, a twinkle in her sapphire eyes, "I think you're faking it." I nod, and she grins.

"I knew it!" She hisses, rubbing her hands together, "You don't talk, because you're really a boy!" My head shoots up, and I look her in the eyes for the first time. Her face is radiant, beaming with mischievousness and friendliness.

It is the third-prettiest face I've ever seen. "Don't worry!" She says briskly, "I won't tell!" "I'm not a boy." I say flatly. It's the first words I've said in months. "Sure." Princess Flitari winks, then reaches across the table, and slides my chocolate cake in front of her.

She takes a forkful, teasingly brings it to her lips, and consumes it while rolling her eyes in exaggerated hedonism.

"Oh, this cake is so good, Junie! Or should I call you 'Justin?'" "My name is Julia." I reply. "I think you mean 'Julius.'" Princess Flitari giggles. It angers me. I am not a boy! I don't know how to deal with her teasing.

I don't how to deal with confrontation at all. All I know is that when I get upset, I start to feel the heat. I drop my eyes, and begin whispering a prayer to the Holy Mother. "You talking to your imaginary friend, Loony-Julius?" Princess Flitari sniggers. I glower at her and continue my prayer, and she only broadens her grin. "You can pray to the lady in the sky all you want, Looney-Julius, but you'll never be a real girl." Princess Flitari leans forward, and whispers, "Because you gotta teeny-weenie and I'm going to tell everyone!" And with that, I upend my bowl into her face, and cover Princess Flitari in cold, cream-colored soup.

She gawks at me for a moment, her eyes wide, lunch dripping from her hair and nose. I stare back in horror, realizing I am most certainly going to be thrown onto the streets for this.

Then Princess Flitari licks her lips, grins, and throws her cake into my stunned face. The anger comes back to me, and I throw my milk into hers. Infuriatingly, she just giggles, and splashes me with her juice. I toss my yogurt into her hair, she whips sorbet into mine, and before I know what I'm doing, I'm grabbing the salad bowl, and hurling fresh produce at the most powerful seven-year-old in the empire. And I'm laughing. For the first time in months, a smile breaches my face, and laughter pours from it.

She's laughing too. She calls her flustered servants forward, and they supply her with fresh ammunition. I jump onto the long table, and collect some of my own from the other orphans. They yell and cry their protest, but I don't care. I just want to cover Princess Flitari with food. I dodge a cucumber, duck a carrot, and careen headfirst into a held-out plate of mashed potatoes. An older boy grins at me, and I grin up at him.

"Food fight!" Princess Flitari belatedly yells, and the battle lines are swiftly drawn. I become the de facto leader of my faction, and the princess becomes the leader of hers, and the entire orphanage tosses their lunch across the long table, ducking and firing in turn, plates clattering and cups bouncing off the floor. The nuns rush in, and become immediate victims of collateral damage. Their squawks fall on deaf ears as I rally my troops to charge.

We leap atop the long table, and attack the other side, taking mass casualties with our exposure, but gaining the high ground. Princess Flitari's troops suffer greatly to our barrage of thrown rolls and dumped gravy, and they take refuge beneath the table. We have won, and we cheer our victory right has Mother Septina bursts into the room. Everyone goes silent, and everyone's eyes fall to me. Mother Septina follows their gaze, and her cold, brown stare burns a hole in my head.

I gulp. An hour later, and I'm only a quarter of the way done scrubbing the floor. I wipe my brow, curse under my breath, then immediately pray for forgiveness. I grit my teeth, trying to ignore the pain in my knees, and I scrub the grout between the stones, where cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes have formed a thick glue. There's the sound of indignant yelling, of dishes clattering, and of a stern, authoritative voice rising above it all. I look up just in time to see Mother Septina hauling Princess Flitari into the mess-hall by the point of her ear.

"My father will hear about this!" Princess Flitari exclaims. "And I'm sure he'll send his finest warriors to rescue you, and his cruelest torturers to punish me!" Mother Septina scoffs, yanking the princess forward, "But until then, Your Grace, you can scrub the floors with your little minion!" Mother Septina hands Princess Flitari a bucket and sponge, and propels the indignant royal toward me.

"And if you try to make little Julia do everything, you'll be cleaning the outhouse on chili night!" And Mother Septina slams the door behind her. Princess Flitari screams, growls, kicks at a banana, then huffs over to me. She grumbles as she gets on her hands and knees, further ruining her already-ruined dress, and begins scrubbing the floor. We work in silence for a moment, not acknowledging each other.

Then she looks over at me, and grins, and I grin back. She's dead. The world was glowing. Iridescent reds burned from the melted vestiges of the arena, and glimmered as far as I could see. The wind howled, buffeting my body, stinging me with embers and ash. I was burning, burning sapphire. There was melted metal in my hand; Lucilla's necklace. I hadn't take it off, and now it was nothing. I tried to reform it, to smelt the platinum as I had done with the steel of my temple, but I didn't have that power anymore.

It was gone. She was gone. I looked around at the world I had made, numbly realizing what I had done. Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions. I let the melted crescent symbol drip from my fingers, and pool below me. It was a fitting gesture, for I was most certainly the tool of Satan. I'd been a fool.

I'd been lulled to complacency by the unassailable knowledge that I was doing God's will, not once questioning if I was telling myself a lie, not once stepping back to realize the thread I was following formed a spider's web. And now, I'd fulfilled his purpose. The same patterns that had glowed from Lucilla, now glowed from the melted surfaces of Drastin. A cruel punchline for this drawn-out joke. She's dead. "There might be survivors." I muttered, "Can't leave it like this." My arms and legs were like jelly, my head was beating like a drum, and my nostrils were running with blood, but I didn't care.

If I died, I died. There was nothing left to keep here. "Diamond…" I whispered. The dull misery was driven from me in the wake of my panic. My daughter was out there, and she was alive!

She had to be! I anchored my feet into the glowing surface, and extended my arms above me. I sucked the heat from the ground, and pushed it into the sky. Higher and higher I drove it, expelling it into a gaseous heat above me. My brow furrowed and glistened, a throbbing began in my temples.

The ground beneath me became cold, then it was freezing, but I could still feel the heat in the distance, as deadly as ever.

I kept pulling it in, and pushing it out. My arms were growing heavy. My legs were growing weak. I gritted my teeth, and pulled, and pushed, running the heat through me, drawing it from miles and miles, and sending it high, high where it couldn't hurt anyone. My heart was beating slower. My nose was running like a river. My eyes were dimming, but I had to do it. Push it higher, push it away. Scorch the heavens with my fire, for there is no spot for me there.

I collapsed to my knees, my head feeling light, but my body feeling like a ton. Push it away where it can't hurt Diamond. My eyes were dripping, for I knew the truth. I killed her. I killed Diamond, and there was nothing left. "Diamond, Lucilla, God." I whispered. Ah, there was the real punchline.

Thank you, Satan. I dropped to my belly, and the world was black. WILLOWBUD The world was black, but I could see it clearly. I was in a tomb, but I wasn't dead. Night Eyes, the woman I'd been for most of my life, was dead.

Her mausoleum was decorated with the abstraction of her dying mind, and in the darkness, I could see them; statues of horror, of my mother staring at me from wide, agonized eyes, her body a horrendous ruin, but her face untouched. I hadn't wanted to disfigure her, for if I plucked out her eyes or gashed her cheeks, then it wouldn't be Mother's face any longer, and I wouldn't get to see it contort in horror.

I needed to see that. I needed to see the realization dawn across it as I removed pieces from her. No more painting for you, Mother. No more playing the lute. No more picking apples, no more climbing trees, no more dancing, no more running, no more walking, no more standing for you, Mother. Now the shield of Night Eyes was gone, and I was left open to her memories. Astrid, Mother, Julia, Lucilla.

They tormented me relentlessly, cut away pieces of my psyche like I'd cut away piece of my mother, but they couldn't kill me.

They could not give me that mercy, because they could not compel me to end it. I was a monster, a coward, and selfish. My life was an abomination, and the world would've been far better off if I'd never been born, but I couldn't do the decent thing, and just die. Even my suffering was a horrible self-indulgence. I was evil. Pure, simple, evil. What else but pure evil would wallow in a hole of self-pity, when she herself had done the deeds? It wasn't me; it was Night Eyes. But Night Eyes was me, and I wished with every ounce of my heart to be her again.

I looked up. A mile above me, I could see the dot of daylight. Julia was up there. Death was up there. All I had to do was ascend from my hole, and greet my end with open arms. I burrowed deeper, pulling the rock over my curled body, trying to become nothing in the void. She would come down here, but she would not find me. I would be safe, the wretch that I was, and I would wait for her to leave, then I would run away. Like last time, I would hop from caravan to caravan, traveling without destination, paying for my transport with my flesh, letting the caravanners use me until I was raw, until pleasure and pain drove away guilt for a fleeting, blissful moment.

Maybe I'd let orc slavers take me again, but this time, there would be no Astrid to compel my escape. They would take me into the Gratoran Desert, and I could live out the rest of my days in the wildlands at the edge of the earth, unknown and uncared for, a toy to be used, a broken vessel to be filled, a life without purpose, without hope.

Bliss. My identity would be raped from me until I was nothing but the receptive pleaser, the smiling slave. Willowbud would only exist as the occasional nightmare, a flashback of fevered dreams, and I would find comfort in the arms of my master, and he would convince me that it was all a lie.

Yes. Yes, that is what I would do. I smiled, and felt some of the pain wash away. I wouldn't have to be me for much longer. I created a tunnel into the earth, and walked parallel to the surface above, closing my passage behind me. I walked until I was sure I was beyond Drastin's walls, then I ascended. I listened to the rock as I neared the surface, and the rock confirmed my assumption. There was a barren plateau above me, and not a living thing for miles. That was strange; Drastin sat on the coast of Drastinar, which was the most fertile country on earth.

There wasn't a square mile in Drastinar without soil. I emerged from the hole, and it was snowing. It fell gently from the blank skies, blanketing the ground and concealing the world behind a steady curtain of grey. I felt the summer heat on my skin, and I felt the snow dissolve between my rubbing fingers.

Ash. No. No, no, no, no… I peered into the grey curtain, and saw the faint outline of a statue. I walked toward it, then I ran toward, then I sprinted, coughing as I inhaled the acrid air, my flesh and hair growing grey with the powdery remains of life. Part of me refused to believe it. Part of me knew that once I got there, once that silhouette clarified, everything would be fine.

I stopped. The statue of Astrid was nothing but legs that ended at the knees, the features of it worn and melted, the trunks of her calves turned to running columns like a used candlestick. My temple was gone, and Brandon's arboretum was the just the burnt stump of his maple.

Only Julia's cathedral remained as a twisted, half-melted mockery of majesty, the dome caved-in, the towers drooping comically away.


Of the rest of Drastin, there was only the singed foundations of buildings peppering a surface of glass. For that was what Drastin was now; black glass covered with ash. I dropped into an ash-bank, curled into a ball, and became a part of the desolation. BRANDON I blinked awake. There was a familiar face hovering over mine, but it was the last one I ever expected to see. "Arby?" I asked.

"Aye, 'tis me." Arbitrus Gen said, inspecting my eyes. His kindly face was drawn in a dour expression, his wrinkles deep in the flesh, his pate shining above a thick beard. I glanced around, and saw that I was in his inn, the same inn I'd tried to pick up girls in throughout my unlucky teen years.

I was in Towerhead. I was home. "What are…" and then it came back to me. The shockwave, the fire, the heat. "Angela!" I bellowed, bolting upright. It felt like someone had driven in a spike into my head. Blinding pain shot between my temples, and I folded over. A familiar, cool hand ran over my forehead, settled at the base of my skull, and guided me back down.

"Bianca saved us, Brandon." Angela said, her face clarifying. "And she brought us here?" my voice was cracked. "I told her to." Angela replied, running her little fingers through my hair. "Where is she?" "Outside, waiting for her sisters to come." Angela said softly. "How many have?" "Not many." Angela's voice became even smaller. I grimaced, touched a finger to my temple, and healed my concussed brain.

"What happened?" I asked. "It's not obvious to ya?" Arby asked. "Why did it happen?" I grunted. "Her fire was blue, Brandon." Angela muttered, "Lucilla's gone." "Oh." I breathed, and hoisted myself into a sitting position. I turned to Angela, "Willowbud?" I asked. "She was at The Pit, and that's where it started." Angela said softly, "I'm so sorry, Brandon." I nodded, numb to both realizations. Two women I'd known, one I thought I'd loved, the other I'd considered a friend, and with them, the greatest city in the world.

There was no doubt in my mind that Willowbud had killed Lucilla, and Julia had lost it. Now that I looked back, it was the most predictable outcome there was. And I had let it happen, because I was too busy getting my dick wet to see the cliff we were all hurtling toward. "Where is Diamond?" Arby asked, "Last I saw of her, she was walking into Sorrow's realm. Did she make it out?" "What?" I asked, confused, "No, Diamond's not in the…" I trailed off. Sorrow's realm?

Sorrow the Sentient?! I looked over at Angela, and saw her face paling, accentuating the freckles that smattered it. "Um…" She gulped, and I could feel her trembling beside me. I took her hand in mine, and she linked her fingers.

I turned to Arby. "Just what in the hell have you two been doing?" JUSTINA Of the two-thousand Breytans who had come to Drastin, less than two-hundred remained. They were all solemnly silent as we emerged from the basement, and walked into the ash-filled dawn.

The cathedral had melted partially, and its caved in-dome lent grey streaks of sun into the speckled air. When we stepped onto what used to be the mall, I could hardly believe what I saw.

Drastin had become a plateau of black glass, occasionally interrupted by the foundations of buildings, or the rare melted structure. Everything was smoothed-over and glossy, not a sharp edge or crumbling surface to be seen.

"What does it mean, Your Eminence?" Jade asked me, "Why did Her Holiness do this? Did she wish us to die in the inferno? Have we betrayed her by surviving?" "No." I muttered, "Julia lost control.

Something terrible happened." "The Bound One." "Yeah." I said, touching the astral gemstone in my ear. It had gone quiet after Lucilla had left, but now it was dead. "This much power…" Jade said quietly, "without the Bound One to provide it for her, such an expulsion would surely have been fatal!" "We'll find her, Jade." I said, not sure if I wanted it to be true.

Maybe it was better if Julia had burnt herself out. The ash was over a foot deep in some places, and still falling freely from the sky. The wind blew it from the exposed glassy plane, and created banks along foundations, over glossed ruins and atop the melted columns of Astrid's statue. That's when it hit me. The Pit. Astrid. Mother. She'd been at epicenter; there was no way she survived. I went suddenly cold, my heart seeming to beat at a lower rate, my throat closing.

I didn't shed tears for her. The loss was so great that all I could feel was emptiness, for the most important person in my life had been torn from me, and the void she'd left seemed to be me entirely. I just kept walking beneath grey skies that snowed the remains of Drastin on my shoulders.

One of the flakes was my mother, and as they blanketed me, I felt an odd sense of comfort. That's when the tears came.

They trickled, then they poured, then they flooded, and I became so crippled by my grief that Jade had to carry me. "The losses weigh heavy on us all, Your Eminence, but we must keep our strength." Jade cooed as she cradled me. "I'm not strong, Jade." I whimpered, "She was, but the bitch died before she could teach it to me!" "Do not speak ill of the dead." "They don't care." I sniffled. Then I sniffed. Then snorted. My head shot up, and I held my nose to the air like a dog, nostrils flaring, taking in the scents that surrounded me.

"What is it?" Jade asked. I narrowed my eyes into the foggy void, focusing on the blurred outline of an ash bank piled at the base of Astrid's statue.

There was a primal moment where I felt the instinctual fear of prey who has just spotted her stalking predator. That moment dissolved in the heat of my wrath, and before I knew what I was doing, I jumped out of Jade's arms, and sprinted.

Mother was right; I was an athlete. I closed the distance in mere seconds, and the watching predator was too stunned by the turn of her prey to act. I grabbed Willowbud Autumnsong by the horns, yanked her out the ash pile, and drove her head against the glass, intent on bashing her skull in before she could react.

Her body was a grey mask, and upon impact, the ash flaked away to reveal a caramel face of near-juvenile proportions, and wide, white eyes. I stopped, and gawked, and Willowbud gawked back. The real Willowbud. "Hi… cousin." Willowbud managed to say, her voice small and shaking.

It had her timbre and tone, but it sounded so different from the voice she used to speak with, that it might as well have been from another woman. This was a stranger. "Cousin?" I muttered, searching her face for something to hate. "It's me… it's Willowbud." Willowbud attempted a smile, but it was a tortured one, "I'm back." "I don't know you." I whispered, tightening my grip on her horns, "I only knew the woman who enslaved me, who used me, who forced my mother to bleed for her amusement!" "I'm sorry." Willowbud just said, her voice so small it was barely a whisper.

"You killed Lucilla, didn't you?" I asked. Willowbud gulped her affirmation, an ocean of guilt in her eyes.

But she was confessing to crimes she never committed, for this thing, this wretch was incapable of anything as brazen as murder. She was innocent, but I still found my reason to hate her. Cowardice. The same cowardice that I saw in myself, and we always hate in others what we detest the most in ourselves. I backhanded my cousin across the face, and her head whipped to the side. She cried out, but she didn't attempt to fight back.

She didn't even attempt to run away. I hit her again, twisting her head the other way, and still, she only cried out, her cheeks red with my strikes, a trickle of blood running from the corner of a trembling lip.

"I should've killed you." I growled, grabbing her horns and forcing her face to mine, "I had so many chances to do it, but I kept giving you chances instead!" "I'm sorry!" Willowbud blubbered. "Sorry?!" I laughed, "Is that all you can say?!

Where's Night Eyes, Willowbud? I miss her already!" I roughly pressed my cousin's head into the ash, raised myself atop her, and dragged my crotch over her mouth. My lustful instincts married with my hot wrath, my desire to humiliate and debase mingled with my need for release. I grabbed Willowbud by the horns, and forced her face to tilt, savoring the confusion, fear, and sorrow mingling her bugling eyes.

I smeared my leaking lips over quivering ones, and smirked when her tongue compliantly did as I demanded. She pushed inside me, her wet member writhing frantically, desperate to please, desperate to avoid my punishment.

Cowardly, docile, subservient; just like I had been. "Slave." I sneered as I gyrated, hunching my shoulders over her, staring down from my curtain of black hair as she stared back, dutifully sucking from my folds. Her nose pressed into my hood, the clit engorging and teasing the tip of her wetted snout.

"This is what you made me do, Cousin!" I hissed, "I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!" Willowbud mewled a muffled tone, her muzzle glistening with my secretion as I rode her face. Her hands stayed at her sides, but I could tell by the smell of her that she was aroused; aroused and terrified.

"You can fuck yourself, whore!" I snarled, "Your Mistress give you permission!" And she did, almost confusedly so, as though her hands were acting against her will. Her hips rocked from side to side as I grinded front and back, the ash sticking to my glistening form. "Do you want to eat Mistress's dirty shithole?" I growled, and not waiting for an answer, I angled my pelvis forward, swallowing Willowbud's nose between my blushing, leaking folds, and silencing any protest she might've said with my winking star.

Her lips compliantly wrapped around me, and her tongue pushed through the aperture, wetly dilating it, before writhing inwardly as she had done in my cunt, trying her damndest to please me, trying to keep my wrath at bay. I moaned and gasped atop her, never breaking my imperious stare, never once giving her the reprieve of my eyes.

I savored the wide eyes watching me from beneath my dripping folds, the pleasure and the terror mingling within them. She sucked my rim to a swollen circle, cleaned my innards with a ravenous tongue, and when she curled that tongue along the wrong side of my vaginal floor, I came.

I squirted my release onto her face and hair, coiled my heinous delight onto her tongue, and quivered with leg-shaking euphoria as I watched her do the same.

Sweetheart loves riding on a hard rod

When I slid my crotch from her, her lips were stringed with my lustful filth, her nose shined with my expulsion, and her eyes stared back, only fear, no shame from her violation. Willowbud had been raped before. This didn't hurt her like I wanted.

"Mom!" I screech, and backhanded the Earth Former, "Brandon!" I screamed, striking Willowbud again, "Lucilla!" another strike, "Astrid!" I made sure to savor Willowbud's tortured expression when I mentioned the Valkyrie, "Angela…" oh my god, even Angela was dead, "Diamond…" my hands fell to my side, the rage washing from me.

Beneath me, Willowbud whimpered and bawled, tears covering a face she vainly tried to protect with her forearms. Mom, Brandon and Angela were dead, and Diamond was doomed to Sentience. I had only Willowbud left, and she had only me.

I would go alone then. "We tried so hard to save you." I whispered down at her, collecting my viscous lust from her lips with a circling thumb, "We sacrificed so much to get you back, and now I see that it was a fool's errand.

You're not worth one Brandon, or one Angela, or one Lucilla, or one Astrid, or one… Mom." I choked out the last word, "You're not even worth one me." I stood up, and looked one last time into the weeping eyes of Willowbud Autumnsong. There was only relief on her face; relief that it was over. She was a broken thing.

Maybe she'd always been a broken thing. Maybe Willowbud Autumnsong had gone mad a decade ago, and Night Eyes was the sane one, for all I saw now was a whipped dog trying to lie still, cautiously hoping that I'd had my fill of abuse, and she could scamper into the ash-filled void before I changed my mind.

I spit on her, then turned away, and I heard her scuffling feet, then the dwindling patter of her flight. It was like she'd forgotten she was a god.

"Do you feel better, Your Eminence?" Jade asked curiously when I approached the Breytans. "No." I muttered, then took her hand, and recommenced our trek into the wastes. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Interlude Two: Winds of Change PETRANUMEN "Joy was much like Vitanimus.

The thoughts she brought to the winds were of the future; of learning, knowing, and mastering. I never had such proclivities; in my mind, the earth was perfect as it was. I believed that life was to be lived purely, and the thoughts I brought to the winds were of the present; of sensation, emotion and revelry.

I feared the constraints that progress would place on the eternal now, for I believed that if life was always looking to the future, it would be blind to the precious present.

But Vitanimus and Joy disagreed, and I did not have the strength or will to fight them. I must pause my tale to teach you of another thing, Diamond. When the worlds were one, we did not have language, but we had understanding.

Understanding is the communication of wolfpacks, lion prides, and great herds that move impossibly as one. It was the naked truth that we projected onto the winds of thought, before morality came to be. For there could be no morality when man's baser nature was shown to all. Because of this, communication was always of the present, for there was no understanding of the future.

Vitanimus and Joy wanted to create a different kind of communication, one that could speak in abstractions and hypotheticals. Of lies. They created language. They spoke in terms of numbers, quantifying by simplifying, labelling, but no longer knowing.

For when you give a name to something, you can tell others of it, and they will know the name, but they will not understand of what you speak.

The winds of thought were filled with abstractions that no one could grasp, and so understanding began to leave our people. Their minds had changed." I paused, collecting my thoughts. Diamond sat attentively, waiting for me to continue. I picked up the gemstone that rested on my bedside table, and its familiar contours soothed me.

It was pure, beautiful rock, carved from time and heat, and it could never lie to me. I understood it completely. I looked at the window, where the passing face of a perplexed dwarf dwindled by, then faded into nothing. "Death." I muttered, "Death is just the degradation of the vessel.

The physical plane batters the vessel until it no longer functions, then the mind carries the soul into a higher plane of existence. When the worlds were one, our fallen parents lived upon the winds of thought.

But the winds began to speak nonsense, and our fallen loved ones could not cope with it. For the first time, the cognizant winds became as hostile as the world of flesh, and there was a new kind of death." I looked at Diamond, her profile blurring with my tears, "We did not know where they went, or why they went. We only knew that they were gone. Our people panicked with the realization, but there was nothing that could be done for them.

The cognizant winds had changed forever, and death meant something new. Vitanimus insisted that knowledge would save us, and in that time, stricken with grief and blinded with love, I believed him.

We lost our innocence to the seduction of knowledge, and built sterile monuments of learning. We set laws based on the consensus of fear, and we lost the individual to the masses, and the masses to society.

We forgot the ancient rhythms we once dance to, and all the secrets in the cosmos were not worth the sacrifice!" And I hurled the gemstone at the window, and the bane of Vitanimus shattered to a thousand pieces. Diamond screamed and scrambled atop the chair, and I wailed and collapsed to me knees. Where do they go? Why do they go? A thousand years they are as one, like conjoined twins of the sun. You killed her. You killed her, killed her, you killed her, YOU KILLED HER!

I felt the columns crack, their fractures sending booms into the void below. It called to me breathily, like a lover with two capsules of cyanide and a bottle of wine. No! NO! My body bent with the effort of expelling my guilt, but it had a hold of me now, and it constricted my mind, squeezing out all thoughts but panic. Then, I felt her. Arms pulling me into an embrace, legs surrounding me.

Supple warmth, soothing whispers, and the heartbeat of another. I felt myself come back, felt my heart slow to a steady, light cadence. She pet my hair and held me close, singing softly in my ear. "Forever they will live as one, like two lovers of the sun, shining from creation's birth, to hold a tether to the earth." She sang softly to me as Julia had to her. "Do you know who wrote that song?" I asked her.

She shook her head, her chin moving through my hair. "Yes, you do." I whispered, "She loved poetry." "I'm sorry." Diamond muttered. "Do not be." I breathed, rotating in her embrace so that I could look at her, "You… you almost sounded like her. Now she sings a different version." "I know." Diamond answered.

Her eyes were purple backing emerald, her face was a portrait of olive smattered with jeweled freckles, and her hair was a luxurious scarlet that bore two, black antlers. Her apple cheeks were slack with the slight part of her supple lips, and her expression was rapt, unsure, but curious.

So curious. "You made love to her." I whispered. "Yes." Diamond whispered back. I became very aware of the pressing nature of our nudity. I noted the way my pale bosom was overlapping her modest chest, and the way my rounder thighs straddled her slender ones.

I closed the distance between our faces with caution, then ran my thumb across her lips, and caressed her blushing cheek with the lightest touch my fingertips could offer. She trailed one hand up my back, and the other down it.

Her fingers tangled in my hair and squeezed one succulent cheek, and our lips opened and pressed. My hips rolled forward, my pubis dropped, and I penetrated myself with her, moaning my muffled delight between the seal of our mouths. I raised my face atop hers, my expression gaunt and near-mournful with its need, my body curving into hers as she set the pace. My petals blushed and dripped upon her stalk, the lips sucking with carnal avarice to pull her deeper, the pearl of my flower engorging and sliding along the top of her manhood, sending fire into my nethers.

She moaned with me, our lips parting to yield a string of saliva that glistened between us, our locked gazes drunk with each other. She snaked a curious finger down the canyon of my clapping cheeks, and raised a questioning eyebrow. I nodded with a gaping smile, and expressed the joy of my anal violation with a whine of delight. She grinned mischievously, and added a second finger to my tight filth, and I rewarded her by bringing her face to my bosom, and suffocating her with my breasts.

She suckled from me, the wet tones of her mouth mirroring the squelching tones of our lustful meeting. I closed my eyes in bliss, and rested my chin between her antlers. We rocked back and forth, the sensuality of our motions never leaving us, only growing more ardent as we reached the precipice. My legs trembled, my spine dove into an arch, and my insides opened for her invading cock and exploring fingers.

Her sucking mouth pulled my nipples to aching points, her thrusting hips moved with barely-tamable violence. I cried out and shifted against her, slamming my body with all the force I could bring, separating myself with each squelching slap of flesh.

My toes curled, my head fell back, and I came when she did. My insides contracted around her pumping member, which spewed her ascension deep into my womb. My body tensed for a moment, trapped in the intensity, then relaxed in satisfied languor, the echoes of it sporadically wracking my form. Her offering dripped from me and onto her pelvis, whose shaft still stood rigidly and pleasantly in my defiled depths.

"You have a strong libido, Daughter of Passion." I smiled down at her, and she returned it with an impish grin. I did not let her exit me, but held her within, coercing her arousal back with the clenching of my lewder muscles. It had been so long since I had made love without the filter of Corruption; I had forgotten the joy of it. I had forgotten the way it numbed the pain. "I think…" I mused, brushing away scarlet strands that plastered her flushed face, "I know how I can tell you my story without it destroying me." "Mmm…" Diamond hummed, wrapping her lips around a reddened nipple.

She could tell I liked it. Maybe she knew it awoke the maternal part of me, and that part of me mingled with my lustier side. Maybe she sensed that my daughter and I once had a relationship much like she had with her mother. I slid my hand through Diamond's hair, and closed my eyes as she nursed from me; soft, sensual lips and a curious, playful tongue.

I rocked my hips, moaned, and continued my tale. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Part Three: Hope TERA I was a survivor.

I'd been a survivor my whole life. Self-pity was a detestable emotion in others, and downright disgusting in myself, but the woman who abhorred such weakness seemed to be gone. I stared at the purple veins of my wrist, the hand it bore brutally sliced away mid-palm.

I tested the edge of my blade with my only remaining thumb, wondering if I had it in me. We were on cliffside miles away from the bay. It was a sunny and clear morning, not a cloud in the sky save for the enormous, black vaporous mushroom that seemed to rise continuously from the corpse of Drastin. "Justina." I muttered. The name had been on my lips for hours now, coming from me compulsively with the miserable droning of my mind.

The pain of my severed hand had been a welcome distraction, but I no longer felt the horror of losing the appendage. I'd lost so much more. "I knew a warrior-woman who cut her wrists." Astrid said, "She'd been banished from Iona for thievery. I remember the look she gave me after she'd made the cut. Pure horror." "She still had something to live for; she just didn't realize it until it was too late." I said.

"Do you have nothing left to live for?" Astrid asked over her shoulder. "I'm old, Astrid. I'm five-hundred years old. I might look like a young woman, but I'm crippled with time. Everyone who knew me as a friend is long-dead, and the one piece of me I'd kept for the future is dead as well. There's nothing left to do." "Then why do you hesitate?" "Because I'm afraid." I whispered.

Astrid walked over, and sat beside me, giving me a strong shoulder on which to rest my head. "That fear is your life." Astrid said into my crown, "It's telling you it's not over yet." "I can't live with this." "Yes, you can." Astrid said firmly, pulling me into her lap. Astrid had become the stoic, hard woman she'd been when I first met her. She was all codes and duty now; I missed the reckless slut already.

"You killed your mother, your god is dead, and your honor was abandoned weeks ago." I muttered, "You can do it for me, Astrid. Stop pretending to be who you were." "I am who I am." Astrid replied, "I can't pretend, Tera, you know that.

I am a traitor to myself, my people, and my family, but that doesn't mean I should continue to be one. There is always room for growth, even if it is too late." "This is my fault, Astrid." I whispered, "We were digging where we shouldn't have. None of this would've happened if it weren't for me." "What are you talking about?" Astrid asked softly. I told her everything.

The truth spilled from my mouth like a bile, and I spiced it with vitriol, trying to compel this woman to break my neck. When it was over, I sat silently and expectantly in her lap, angling my head just right. "You are an honorable woman, Tera Autumnsong." Astrid said with a shuddering breath, "You acted when I could not, and you risked so much to do so." "Oh, fuck you, Astrid!" I seethed, "If it weren't for me, your mistress would still be alive!

I killed her!" "You tried to save her." Astrid said, encompassing me in her embrace, "Long after I'd given up, you still held on to hope." Astrid nuzzled her face in my neck, and kissed me there, "You say you are without friends, but I consider you my dearest friend, Tera Autumnsong." "Then do your friend a favor." I hissed. "No, Tera." Astrid whispered, "If you can't do it, then there is still hope in you, and we can't stop fighting if there's… still… hope…" Astrid bolted upright, leaving me sprawling on the grass.

She marched to the side of the cliff, and without a look back, she jumped. Her wings caught the wind and sun in a resplendent display of white, and she narrowed to a white dash in the sky, then was gone. I stared stupidly after her, then at the knife in my hand. "Goddamn it!" I growled, and scabbarded the weapon.

I walked to the cliff's edge, and peered over. Then I jumped off it, hooked my remaining hand on the ledge, and began my descent to the valley below. Fucking hope. ANGELA "…holy shit, Angela." Brandon finally said after I'd told him everything. Arby was in a rocking chair, smoking a pipe of sapphire flame, looking out the window at the black mushroom cloud.

"Hatred, Greed and Sorrow." Arby mused, "Corruption, Guilt and Chaos. I am Purity, Silvia was Passion, and you were Serenity; now you are just Angela." "'Just Angela' is all I want to be, thank you." I frowned. "If you're right about the astral plane, then someone else will fill the role of Serenity." Arby shrugged, "I hope you don't regret your choice; when the end is coming for you, you might." "The end is coming for you too, Arby." I scowled, "You can't live forever." "And the older you get, the more scared of it you become." Aby sighed, "The lucky ones die young." "I didn't feel very lucky." I replied.

I remember liking the dwarf a lot better when I thought he was just a drunken innkeeper. Though now that I thought about it, it always did seem like he could see me. "So…" Brandon said, kneading his temples, "You don't know what happened." "No." I replied, "I never got to The Pit. Lucilla was going to have Willowbud killed, but I guess Willowbud got her first." "And you thought fucking me was more important than stopping that?" Brandon glowered at me.

"Lucilla wasn't supposed to be there, Brandon." I muttered, forcing myself to hold his gaze, "I was going to leave, I was going to try to save her, but then you pulled me back." "So it's my fault?!" Brandon snapped. "No." I said, trying not to choke on my shame, "In that moment I had the choice to save Willowbud, or let her die.

When you touched me, it was no choice at all. I didn't want her to have another chance with you. You're mine." "Good Mother." Arby snorted from his chair.

I hardly registered he was there. I just stared at Brandon, bearing myself openly to him, hoping that he could forgive me. I wasn't sure if I could forgive myself, but then again, I wasn't sure if I needed to. As long as I had him, it didn't matter.

Holy shit, you are pathetic, Angela. "God, you're fucked up." Brandon sighed, dropping his head between his shoulders, "Oh God, why do I always stick my dick in crazy?

Why can't I just have a nice girl?" "You resurrected your twin sister from the dead so that you stick your dick in crazy." I laughed sadly, running a comforting hand through his hair, "I don't think you get to blame God for this one." There was the sound of annoyed conversation just out the window.

Bianca was arguing with someone, then that someone started yelling, then Bianca tried placating them with an apologetic, yet resolute tone. There was a loud knock on the door, then the growls and heaves of a struggle, then the door burst open, and my parents came barging in with Bianca rushing after them.

Brandon's jaw slackened, my jaw slackened, and Arby looked slightly amused. My parents didn't even acknowledge me. They just stopped abruptly in the threshold and gawked at Brandon while Bianca gave her god a very sorry look. "Well fuck me sideways and call me 'Twisty.'" Dad exclaimed in his thick accent, "Our son is a bonafide heathen idol." Dad wrapped an arm around my stunned mother, then, being the classy guy that he was, grabbed his nuts, "I guess I have some devil juice in the family jugs, now who would'a thought?" "Brandon?" Mom said in her meek voice, "Is it true?" "Well o' course it's true, Mary; do you think Brandon here could manage to get this statuesque negress if he was anythin' but one o' the devil's own?" Dad cackled, gesturing to the blushing Bianca behind him, "Looked to be about two dozen o' 'em flyin' in from Drastin, or whatever the fuck Drastin is now.

Hey Brandon, did you have anythin' to do with that shit? Ho-lee fuck that was a show!" "Brandon, what's happening?" Mom was on the verge of hysterics, "Yesterday we got the news that the heathen idols had returned, and that you were one of them! I told everyone it couldn't be true, I told everyone this was all a lie spun by Tera, that whore, and then." Mom put her head in hands.

"…then the whole fuckin' world went to shit in about thirty seconds!" Dad cackled, slapping his knees, "Was that the good sister Julia Gendian? I read about her. I like her. Good god-fearin' woman with a solid moral compass, she is, or he, or whatever the fuck it is.

Got a cock bigger than a moose's, but an ego smaller than a lamb's. I bet she got sick of all the sinnin' happening in them walls, and decided to just wash it all away! Burn the heretics with fire, that'll show 'em! Glad you got out though, son." "And this nymph girl, Night Eyes?" Mom lamented, tears in her eyes, "Is it true? Are you fornicating with her? She has… she has a penis, Brandon! Not only is this out of wedlock, but it's homosexual, it's… unnatural!" "Oh, don't worry your sweet heart, Mary." Dad said, pulling Mom close, and kissing the top of her head, "Our son's the devil's spawn, just like them other two.

They all engage in amoral debauchery because 'tis their nature. Even the good sister who tries to deny her nature is marred with the sin of her creation, and must bear the body of lecherous mutilation for all to witness her sins, say 'amen,' Mary." "Amen." Mom whimpered. "Now just because our boy is doomed to roast in a pit of agony until the end of creation, don't mean we can't love him, right Mary?" Dad asked. "Amen say God." Mom cried again.

"Amen say god." Dad reaffirmed, then grinned broadly at Brandon, "Boy, do you got some stories to tell me. I want to know about every busty devil's wench you've been sticking your father-given-gift into, starting with this hussy here." Dad pointed at me, "Just what in the hell are you, girl?

You some kind of witch? Why you glowin' like that? Why you cryin', I didn't say nothing mean to you! Why you… why you…" Dad's face slowly fell, the mirth leaving it. His jaw hung open, his blue eyes widened, and a single tear rolled down his cheek.

"Angie?" He whispered. "Hi Dad." I whispered back. Mom's face went rigid, her eyes bulging, searching me frantically. Dad took one cautious step toward me, like he wasn't sure if I was safe to approach. Then he sprinted at me, tears pouring from his eyes, and he scooped me up and spun me in the air, laughing and crying into my shoulder, squeezing me to the point of asphyxiation.

Then Mom was holding me too, peppering my face with kisses, wetting my cheeks with her euphoria. We ended up on the floor somehow, rolling over each other, heaving and exalting. They didn't seem able to believe I was there. It was like they had to embrace me with all their might just to make sure I wasn't an apparition. They blubbered unintelligibly, but I understood. I could feel the years of grief wash from them, and from me. When I finally saw their rosy, wet faces again, I swore they looked younger.

It wasn't anything Brandon had done, not directly; the haggardness that had aged them had left their complexions. The wounds in their souls had been healed. "Thank God for you, Angie!" Dad bawled, wrapping his meaty forearm around the back of my neck. "No," I said, smiling to my brother, who was barely holding it together in his chair, "thank Brandon." JULIA I'm ten years old, and Lucilla is twelve.

I'm wearing the habit of sisterhood, though it will be several years before I can be confirmed as a sister of the Maternal Order. I've already said my vows though. I will not drink, I will not revel, and I will not know the touch of another. They are good vows, good rules to govern me. Not only do they bring me closer to the Holy Mother's light, but they will keep me from feeling the extremes of life, and bringing me closer to the fire. "Sweet Mother, this is fucking boring." Lucilla yawns beside me.

She has recently decided she is old enough to swear, and so enhances her sentences with curses. "Shhh!" I hiss at her. We are in the chapel, and Mother Septina is giving her sermon. She doesn't break from her droning speech, by glowers up at Lucilla and I. Lucilla has chosen me as her charge, so I am responsible for her behavior. I feel my face grow red, and I shift uneasily in our booth.

"Who's that boy down there?" Lucilla asks. "Good Mother, lower your voice!" I growl, giving Mother Septina an apologetic stare as her glower burns hotter. Lucilla grins at me. Gone are the days when she was beholden to Mother Septina. They'd past once Lucilla gained the ability to pull out of the mother's infamous ear-pinch. I, however, am bound to more than just the limitations of Septina's grip strength, and Lucilla enjoys getting me in trouble.

I know she will be the bane of my sisterhood, but she is my best and only friend, so I'm stuck with her. "Who is the cutie in row one?" Lucilla mercifully whispers.

"That's Brian; he's in the priesthood." I scowl at Lucilla. "I bet I can convince him to leave." Lucilla sniggers, and purses her lips at me. Lucilla has also determined she is old enough to have a boyfriend, which as her charged sister, is alarming. Luckily, she hasn't yet pursued that avenue. Unluckily, it is only because there were so many avenues for her to pursue.

"The Holy Mother frowns on you, Lucilla." I frown. "She's such a prude cunt." "Lucilla!" I gasp, and all eyes in the chapel turn to me. Mother Septina stops her sermon, lowers the Maternal Path, and looks expectantly at me. Beside me, Lucilla is barely holding in her laughter, her eyes telling me I'd just walked right into her trap.

"Do you have something to add to the lesson, Daughter Gendian?" Mother Septina asks, her voice terrifyingly calm. "No, Mother." I gulp, "Forgive me, Mother." "See me after the service, Daughter." Mother Septina says, and I feel my heart drop. The eyes that glance back at me bear the expressions of someone watching a condemned girl, and they turn away.

Mother Septina's withering glare remains, however, and she continues her sermon as though it is directed at me personally. "Gotcha." Lucilla cackles under her breath. "If the Good Mother is just, you will burn in hell, Lucilla." I growl beneath mine. "I'd rather hang out with the cool kids down there, than a bunch of sack-wearing loser in heaven." Lucilla smiles.

Later that day, I am limping into my dormitory. Mother Septina had given me the paddle, and I suspected it would be a week before I could sit without a pillow beneath me. I cautiously ease myself into bed, silently cursing Lucilla with every pang that shoots up my spine.

As if on cue, the perpetrator of my punishment bursts into my room. Her eyes are red with tears, and her face is flushed. She storms over to me, then collapses onto the bed, and begins to weep. I wish I could give her the cold shoulder, and let her vent alone, but I can't. Some part of me is predisposed to be compassionate.

"What is it?" I ask, rubbing her back. "Brian rejected me!" Lucilla's muffled voice says into the bedding. I can't help but smile. "Brian is in the priesthood, Lucilla. Did you really think you could convince him to break his vows?" "Yes." Lucilla whimpers. Now I'm laughing, and Lucilla turns over, not at all pleased with me. "What the fuck is so funny?!" She snaps. "You." I snigger at her, "If this isn't divine justice, I don't know what is." "You vindictive bitch!" Lucilla growls, "My heart has been broken into a million pieces, and you got your booty whipped; how is that justice?!" "Your heart is broken?" I laugh incredulously.

"Into a million pieces!" Lucilla laments dramatically to the ceiling, "I will never know true love! I am destined to die an old, shriveled woman with no one to love me!" "Ah, Brian was your true love." I chuckle.

"He was!" Lucilla cries, covering her tear-streaked face with her hands, "He was the one, Julia! We only get one soulmate in the world, and he has given his soul to god!" "Truly, this is a horrible day for you." I sigh with grandiose sorrow, "You are forever doomed to be Lucilla Flitari, instead of Lucilla… Lucilla… what is your soulmate's last name, Lucilla?" "Eat shit." "Instead of Lucilla Eat-poop." I continue my tragic monologue, "Oh, what a cruel world the Holy Mother has created for us, where preteen princesses are denied the true love of boys whose last names are of fecal ingestion.

Oh, what injustice there is, when those born with everything must settle for slightly less than everything. How can I, an orphan girl with no possessions or home, stand idly by while such atrocities are laid upon the undeserving? Clearly, I have been unduly blessed, and you have been wrongly cursed." Lucilla glowers at me, her puffy eyes narrowing. "You've been practicing your sermons in front of your mirror." "While you've been stuffing your bodice in front of yours." I snicker, poking her chest, and giggling when it deflates.

Lucilla screws up her face in anger, then relaxes it, and relents a smile. "I'm being ridiculous, aren't I?" "You are." I grin, "But it is very amusing, so if you're not over your heartbreak, by all means, keep going." "I think I'm done." Lucilla laughs, wiping her nose and eyes on her sleeve, and sitting up. I am young, not yet beholden to the urges that are beginning to take Lucilla, but even now, I can't help but notice how pretty she is. Her porcelain face is flushed, her pointed nose is rosy, her eyes are shadowed with the makeup of her grief.

Her platinum hair falls from her head in perfectly-straight strands, and frames the delicate beauty of her face. "I can tell you one thing, Julia." She smiles at me, "I am never going to try to have a boyfriend again; monogamy is for idiots." I awoke to grey skies that seemed to touch the ground. I was confused for a moment, wondering why I wasn't in bed with Lucilla. Then I remembered, and it came crashing down on me.

I curled myself in a ball, tightening my eyes against the tears, trying to go back to the paradise of memory. But it was gone, fading from me even as I grasped for it, and it was replaced with the dull face of a woman with a hole in her head. I didn't know how long the grief had me, but it felt like an eternity.

It wracked me, crippled me, kept me curled into a fetal ball and hissing like a cat. Snot and tears marred my portrait, mixing with the dried blood that crusted my upper lip. When I regained myself, I wiped the filth from my face, and stared blankly out at the world. Visibility was down to about fifty yards. That wouldn't do. I sent a pulse of heat through the air, and it cleared to reveal… nothing.

Drastin was nothing. No… no, there was still something. In the distance, I saw twin pillars of melted iron. Was that Astrid's statue? Oh… Astrid. Oh, Tera! Brandon, Jade, Bianca, Justina… wait.

Justina. I scanned the horizon, looking past the remnants of Astrid's statue. There was a bump, barely visible, but it was there. It was where Brandon's arboretum had been. So, there was something. The roots of his Great Maple, maybe? Maybe there was a basement! And Justina was a smart girl, she surely would have taken to lower ground, and she surely would've taken Diamond with her! Yes! Yes, she was alive!

She had to be! "Why?" I asked myself, feeling my manic hope fade, "Why does she have to be? Why do you deserve anything, Julia?" I rose numbly to my feet, my knees wobbling. My throat was so parched, and I was so hungry, but I didn't feel like water or food.

I just needed to know. Diamond had been with Justina, and Justina was always with Brandon. If there was any hope in the world, it would be in that bump on the horizon.

But hope was for fools. Hope was what made me think I could drive Corruption from Willowbud; or maybe that was just arrogance. All I had to do was kill her. All I had to do was raise my hand, and turn Willowbud Autumnsong to ash, and none of this would've happened. But I had convinced myself that God wanted Willowbud alive.

Well, Night Eyes was just the messenger of Satan, as I had known all along, but his message wasn't Corruption, as I had presumed before. His message was an invitation, and I'd accepted it. Of all the names I'd included among the dead, Willowbud Autumnsong was not among them. For I'd seen her bury herself deep in the earth, and I knew she'd survived. The cockroaches always do.

"Run away, Willowbud." I whispered on the wind. She wasn't Night Eyes anymore, but it didn't matter. Saving Willowbud Autumnsong might've been the only good I'd done in my whole life, and that was why I was going to kill her. But first, I needed to confirm the death of my daughter. I took a wobbling step onto the ashen plateau, and then another. Soon, I was limping across the hell I'd made, my eyes fixed onto the bump on the horizon. She's dead.

She's dead, she's dead, she's dead. The thought tortured me with every waking moment, accompanied by flashes of old memories, and the ever-present portrait of a dull woman with a hole in her head. Maybe Diamond's cindered corpse would replace the thought, or maybe it would accompany it. No, she's alive. She's dead. Maybe it would just drive me mad. Maybe I already am. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Interlude Three: Masks PETRANUMEN "Death became ever-present in the minds of our parents, and with it, came fear.

The two ideas infected the cognizant winds and gave fuel to the engine of society. Vitanimus encouraged it, believing that organization and efficiency would expedite ingenuity. We created civilization. I raised domiciles from the earth, Vitamins raised crops from the soil, and Joy irrigated the land. The people divided themselves into sects, then divided themselves again, and again, and again. They formed specializations, and Vitanimus said it was good, for a specialist could breach the walls of knowledge like an arrowhead, where a generalist would hit it like a club.

But from the specializations came segregation, then hierarchy, then a bureaucracy, and before we knew it, we had a nation. Then, a new idea was spoken on the wind. Power. Oh, what a seductive idea it was. It ran through the minds of those who had it and those who did not, and its allure lighted the cognizant winds like auras. Power coupled with fear, and their bastard child came to be. Murder. For death was no longer something to be conquered through knowledge, but was something to be used for power.

And just as soon as the idea of 'power' came to be, so did 'corruption.'" I stopped my monologue, and stopped the roll of my hips. I was straddled across Diamond's lap, holding her face against my breast. She halted her pelvic drives, and withdrew her mouth questioningly. "That was when Corruption started, isn't it?" She asked. "Yes." I answered breathily, savoring her molten hardness in my tender depths, "I do not know why I was so attracted to the idea, but I latched onto it.

Maybe I knew then that corruption would be the end of power, and therefore, the end of society. For it was at this time that I began to have my doubts." "Vitanimus and Joy worked tirelessly to progress society, and their brilliant minds accelerated its evolution.

But with that progress, came the ills of it. For through the centuries, power had not faded from the astral winds, but intensified. And as Vitanimus and Joy slaved upon the scaffolding of life, so our parents became architects of death. Society divided violently, then divided again, and again. Civil war turned to just 'war' as people entrenched themselves in their differences.

The races were defined, the classes were etched, and the borders were drawn. When the leaders came to us, they no longer asked for the means of production, but the tools of destruction. They wanted swords, not plowshares; warhorses, not cattle; floods, not rivers. Vitanimus and Joy refused, horrified that our creators would ask us for such, but I did not refuse, for I saw the opportunity war could bring. But I could not act as I was, for word would reach Vitanimus's ear, and I could not bear the thought of him knowing of my betrayal.

So, I clothed myself in the darkness of my purpose, and set out into the night. I came to the bedchambers of a warlord whose bloodlust was infamous, and his cruelty renowned. His armies were poised to wash over the land, and conquer all beneath his banner. I would inundate him with the thought I wore upon my flesh, and send him and society into a death-spiral. Only when I arrived, there was another woman there already.

She was skinned in gold, with hair and eyes just as garishly lustrous, and a body whose supple curves were meant to evoke avarice. She seemed unsure of herself, and well she should, for she was a virgin, but apparently not as innocent as I had thought. I recognized my daughter immediately, and she recognized me. We stared at each other across the sleeping warlord, accusation and shame filling our eyes in equal parts. "Greed?" I hissed at her. "Corruption?" Joy scoffed back.

"Power." Another voice said from the darkness, and Vitanimus stepped forth, his skin and eyes a deep red, his horns overgrown, his body exaggerated in its display of muscle, and his manhood too large not to cause pain.

If you wish to know why Satan is described as he is in the Maternal Path, the inspiration came from this moment. There we stood, Greed, Corruption, and Power, the ills of society made flesh to tempt a warlord for our purpose. "Why, Joy?" Vitanimus asked our daughter. "I want to centralize the wealth of the world to create a great city, where great minds will flock to." Joy answered smoothly, "And you, Father?" "I wish to create an empire with a singular, unifying will.

A conqueror is needed to forge this for me." Vitanimus answered, then turned to me, "And you, Petranumen?" "I desire as you do, Vitanimus, and you, Joy." I answered, "I wish for the world to be unified, and the wealth to be centralized. I wish this so that all of society's eggs are in one basket. Then, I wish to crush the basket." "Mother!" Joy exclaimed, horrified, but Vitanimus just shook his head and laughed. When he looked at me, there was a glint in his eyes that hinted at a very real and very dark desire.

The same look was shining from my black eyes, for power and corruption were forbidden lovers. Our attraction was detestable, our intentions were repulsive, and our desire was darker and greater than it had ever been. We liked our new skins; we liked them immensely. "Progress needs correction, or it will run astray." Vitanimus said, "If there is not an antithesis to our purpose, then how can we know if it is right?" "She betrayed us!" Joy narrowed her eyes at me.

"She thinks we betrayed our parents long ago." Vitanimus was still chuckling, apparently quite amused. Joy was not. "We were happy when the world was simple." I tried to explain to her.

"Monkeys are happy to shit in their hands." Joy scoffed. "If it is their nature." I retorted, incensed by her insolence. "Is being true to our nature all that we should strive to be?" Vitanimus asked.

"What is your nature, Vitanimus?" I hissed, "This thought you wear fits you like a glove. As does yours, Daughter." "As does yours, Mother." Joy sneered back. I think it was at that moment, seeing her vitriol shining from her avaricious mask, that my perception of her changed.

Maybe it was my self-perception that changed, I did not know, nor did I care. For I was seeing a dark side of Joy, a side that desired to horde the wealth of nations, and live in splendor as an idol. It aroused me, and the very thought that I would be sexually attracted to my own daughter only aroused me further, for such an attraction was abhorrent and wrong, and Petranumen would surely be ashamed of it. Petranumen would want to hide it.

It would become Petranumen's… darkness. Joy saw the hunger in my eyes, and her sneer slowly faded. "Mother?" She asked, her voice unsure. She looked to her father, and I followed her gaze. Vitanimus was staring at me, his eyes half-lidded and wild, his arousal stirring between his legs. I could see that he wanted to cause me pain, and that knowledge made me want it as well, but I sought further depravities, for Corruption always seeks to stoop lower.

We went to low places that night, Diamond. Never had an Elemental laid a hand on one of our parents, but that night, I did. I took the sleeping warlord from his bed, and hurled him from the tower window. He awoke just in time to realize the end, and his horrific scream was cut with the sickening crack of his breaking body. Joy screamed, but Vitanimus just stared, unflinching, his hunger even greater.

For power only covets more of itself, and now that the warlord was dead, there was a great vacuum of power. "Why?!" Joy shrieked, staring out the window. She turned to me, her face twisted in rage, and she charged me with teeth bared.

She pounced on me, and I wrapped my arms about her like a mother, and embraced her. She bit, scratched, and pulled, but the injuries she dealt healed instantly. I felt her naked suppleness pressed to me, and the way her lithe muscles worked beneath the flesh, and I could not stop myself.

I sank my fingers into her succulent flank, and rolled us onto the bed. "Mother, what are you-" but her objection was cut short with the press of my lips, which opened her own to deliver my tongue. She stared at me, her golden eyes wide with horror, tinging their natural white for a moment as the mask of her golden body fell.

Her slenderness was unsheathed from the voluptuous golden profile, her pure white flesh glowing dimly. I coerced her avaricious nature back with the motions of my tongue, delivering to her the pleasures of an invasive caress. Joy would have found the ordeal traumatic, but Greed wanted to horde the experience. She changed back, willingly indulging in the wrongness of it, focusing on learning the ways of my kiss so that she could keep that knowledge in her treasure box of a mind.

Her breasts pillowed against mine, the nipples stabbing pleasantly between us, and she moved boldly, but in an unpracticed manner atop me. "You have much to learn." I smiled against her parted lips. "Teach me, Mother." She whispered, her breath sweet in my nostrils, her eyes filled with desire, "Teach me everything!" She accentuated the last word with a cry that reflected her need. She spread her legs about me, and I pressed my pubis to hers. She shuddered when she felt our slits connect, and the beads of our erogeneity engorge from their hoods to play.

I guided her hips to shift back and forth, gliding her pearl through my folds, letting my wet, delicate petals caress the center of her lust. She hissed and moaned, her eyes glazing and lidding with hedonism, her mouth gaping, the lustrous, gold lips glistening with my saliva.

I looked over her shoulder, and saw Vitanimus watching us, his engorgement curving upward. I could see in his eyes that he was conflicted, but there was no denying the wants of his body. I just had to goad them. "Take her, Vitanimus." I called over my daughter's shoulder as I gripped her cheeks and spread them, "She is yours." Joy stopped her gyrations, her face stricken with alarm. "Mother, no!" She cried, and the sweet fear and vulnerability in her voice tickled the power-lust in Vitanimus.

He could not stop himself, and nor could she, for even though her mouth sung fearfully her protest, her body still curved to press greedily to mine. It was only when her Father grabbed her by the hips, that Joy finally found the will to resist. She thrashed and twisted, and Vitanimus caught both of her wrists, and pinned them together at the small of her back.

"Father, please don't!" Joy cried, not realizing that her protests only entrenched her fate. She squirmed atop me, each shift causing our connected slits to rub and stimulate, coercing the nectar from our flushing buds.

There was a moment where I remembered who she was, and who I was. I remembered that these skins we wore were just indulgences we took in lesser pleasures, and that the people we were outside of them would regret this forever.

The moment passed, and I angled my daughter's pelvis upward, relishing the sweet song of her fear. Vitanimus shared a megalomaniac look with me, then buried himself to the hilt. Joy's scream sputtered to a breathless gasp.

Her golden eyes bulged, her mouth gaped, and her body wrenched atop me. So great was Vitanimus's girth, that I could feel his bulge through the pressing flat of my daughter's pelvis. It ran through her, then stopped with a smack as his crotch met her cheeks. Then, Joy found her voice. It screeched from her, terrible and pained, and her virgin blood dripped from her and onto my moistened petals. I embraced her once more as mother, whispering sweet nothings into her ear as her father pulled back, then pushed in again, and again, and again.

Each thrust was forceful enough to lurch Joy atop me, and send a ripple down the succulent flesh of her golden backside. "Shh, baby, shhh." I soothed her, stroking her with tender fingers, "It will feel so good, I promise you.

Just take him in, baby-girl." "Stop!" she screamed, writhing to escape the pain her father forced into her. With the sole of my foot, I guided Vitanimus to cease, then to pull from his daughter.

Relief washed over her face, obvious and pathetic, breathy exhalations singing from her lips. I grabbed the back of her head, and pulled it upright until her bulging eyes met my teasing stare.

"If you will not have him, then I will take him from you." I whispered on her lips, "He belongs to me, after all, not you." My chin tilted as Vitanimus entered me, stretching me painfully, forcing my depths open with every inch he pushed inside, "Your father was so gracious to offer his gift to you, and you were so rude to deny it. But no matter," my words were moans, "I will keep him all to myself." If there was a moment that made me fully embrace Corruption, it was the site of my daughter's face after I'd tickled her greed.

For my thrills were begot by the self-ruination of others, and Joy ruined herself in that moment. At first, she dawned an expression of bewilderment. Then, there was a look of annoyance, then anger, then pure, envy. She reached between us, grabbed her father's cock, tore it painfully from my depths, then pierced her own.

She cried out with the pain of it, but she held eye contact with me the whole time, glaring contemptuously as she defiled herself. "Mine!" She snarled, face contorted in challenge. Then, like a greedy child who realized she's taken more into her mouth than her throat can swallow, Joy's expression slackened in horror. "That's it, you gluttonous slut." I said breathily when she began to whine in agony.

I grabbed her hips, and guided them backward, watching the conflict of pleading mercy and voracious hunger battle within her. "You're not satisfied with just a little." I whispered, my tongue finding her lips, "You need to have every…" she gritted her teeth, "…last…" her head flew back, "…inch." I finished, and Joy willingly took the last of her father deep into her tightness.

She gasped, unable to handle what she'd taken, but unwilling to surrender a morsel of it. She stayed still, her body tortuously adapting. Finally, her heavy breaths eased, and her face relaxed. It fell into a thoughtful expression for a moment, then it slowly widened to a wonderous smile. "It's so good!" She said with a gasp, her eyes twinkling above mine. Her body lost its rigidity to a languid arch, and she tilted her head to growl, "Oh, it's absolutely decadent!" And with that, she rolled her hips, lifting one cheek, then the other, stirring her taught lips about her father's invasion, but not letting an inch of him free.

For Greed was never one to willingly relinquish what she'd taken, so her father had to force the issue. He held her wrists together at the small of her back, and ravaged her like a bull. She lurched atop me, crying out with each entrance, and whining needfully with each exit, trying to entice her father with the back-arching elevation of her pelvis, presenting her fertile assets. "Oh, please Daddy!" She cried, affecting the voice of a child, "Give me more. Give me MORE!" The affectation had the desired effect, and the weakness she portrayed goaded her father's power-lust.

He wrapped his hands around her throat, wrenched her upright, and choked her as he heaved with a fervency. Joy's golden breasts turned to rippling domes, her lustrous hair flailed, and her belly clenched and convulsed, the flat of her pelvis bulging with each violent invasion of her father.

She squealed her strangled delight, her head turning to gaze rapturously at her defiler, her chin resting upon her retracted shoulder, her arms flexing behind her back. The angle of her penetration allowed for Vitanimus's shaft to pass through my slit, and I moaned in congruence with my daughter's screams, watching her debase herself, and succumb.

The nectar she oozed from her swollen petals was golden and viscous, and tasted of sweet honey when I brought it to my lips. Oh, I would taste it from the source. "Vitanimus." I spoke with a drawl that I hadn't before.

Vitanimus looked at me from over our daughter's shoulders, his red eyes wild. I guided him to stop his thrusts, ran my fingers along his half-buried shaft, and through the pummeled folds of Joy. She was staring at me with questioning, annoyed eyes, her lips parted to breathe decadent moans, her cheeks flushed with her pleasure and strangulation. "You cannot conquer her more from this expedition." I said, withdrawing Vitanimus from her depths, "There are other campaigns to pursue." "Fuck you, you old bitch!" Joy snapped, "He doesn't want you anymore!

He belongs to me now!" "You mistake me, daughter." I chuckled lowly, admiring the way her broken virginity stayed yawning and dripping even after it had been evacuated.

I looked lazily into her questioning eyes, and guided my husband's weapon backward, sliding the tip down her moist taint, "I am simply suggesting an assault from the rear." The look of shock that came over Joy's face was almost as exquisite as the agonized expression that came immediately afterward. Vitanimus used the fluid of his daughter's lust to lubricate the invasion, but there was no preparing her for the depth of it.

He buried himself into her filthy, virgin hole, and Joy's entire body wrenched.

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Her head flung backward, her breasts jutted forward, her pelvis pivoted downward, and her ass wrenched upward, the small of her back becoming the vertex of her agonized arch. Her bottom lip trembled below wide, mindless eyes, and her chest heaved with desperate intakes. Vitanimus took his daughter by the golden globes of her flank, and lifted her easily from the bed.

She fell spinelessly against him, her pelvis tilting forward, her legs dragging out from beneath her, and flopping uselessly before her.

I could see the extent of her ruination, and my eyes followed a dribble of lust that started from the bottom of her slit, dripped down the ribbon of her taint, and thinned about the stretched rim of her sodomy. When I looked back up at her face, the shocked pain was gone from it, replaced with a drunken, satisfied smile of pure gluttony.

"It's so good, Mommy." She moaned, "It's so good because it's so wrong." "That's right baby." I crinkled my nose affectionally, then lowered my lips to her leaking slit, and tasted her honey from the source. Vitanimus began to thrust, and Joy began to whine and grind. There was no love in the things we did to each other that night; only lust.

Only power, greed, and corruption." "Corruption became a part of you." Diamond moaned, her chin tilting in pleasure, her elegant neck tensing.

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To say that our sex had become more impassioned with my tale would have been an understatement; we were practically animals. "She wasn't then," I said, taking Diamond's head between my hands, "before the worlds broke, she was just a mask. Now, she's a crutch. Even here, away from her realm, I feel that part of me pulling my strings." My grip around Diamond's head tighten, "Even as I speak of it, I feel it coming back to me." "Do you want to dominate me?" Diamond purred, her big eyes brimming.

"I want to corrupt you." I hissed, grinding with a lecherous passion, the sensuality of our dance devolving to something seeped in debased carnality, "I want to find the darkest parts of you, and make them who you are." "Yes." Diamond's voice was dripping and thick, her drives had become long, purposeful motions that matched mine.

"I want to find those primal truths you bury under pride, and I want you to rape yourself with them." I breathed into Diamond's mouth, feeling the heaviness of my desire deep in my chest, feeling it take over my motions and mind. I saw the duality of Diamond's passions, saw the way her male side was weak, and her female side was strong, and I gaged the needs of both.

In a motion that was both violent and graceful, I pulled Diamond from me, grabbed her by the hips, flipped her over on the bed, and left her bent over and begging, her back arching, her pleading face staring back from behind the hunch of her readied shoulders.

I sneered at her, grabbed her pathetic little cock with one hand, pinched my fingers together with the other, and pressed them to the tight, coiled aperture of her.

She whined, her bright, friendly voice corrupting with masochism, her body bending in a bow of pain and pleasure, wanting both, needing both. My fingers pushed into her, each knuckle a pressure point for her rectum to delight in. She hissed and cried, drooling stupidly from gaping lips that only begged for more. I milked her as I went, pumping her seed shamefully onto the mattress, watching the stringing, viscous flow increase as I found the erogenous button of her male homosexuality.

Her pussy was blushing and dripping, but she left it unattended, not wanting to mar the exquisiteness of her masculine debasement. She bit her pouting lower lip, and sung weak, vulnerable tone though her teeth; tones of prey; tones meant to goad the predator. My hand turned to a fist inside her, and her eyes rolled back, her lip indenting with the ardent pressing of her teeth, her legs trembling with the voracious clenching of her violated anus.

Oh, what a treat this daughter of Passion was. She bent and squirmed with each twist of my wrist, each rotation compelling her hips to echo me, each movement spilling spit from her biting lip, and nectar from her throbbing member. It throbbed and flexed in my squeezing hand, yielding spurts of milk. And when the ultimate eruption came to her, it was first marked by the fluttering convulsions of her tortured prostate, before it burst from her pulsing cock in a violent spray that compelled her to throw back her luxuriant scarlet curls, and exalt euphorically to the ceiling.

The moment faded from me, and I felt Corruption fade back into what was left of her realm. I removed my invading fist, and Diamond wrenched forward on her own accord, pulling out the sheath of her, and letting it coil externally as a beautiful bud from her gaping aperture. I massaged it as I knew she wanted, kneading my fingers into the ruby flesh, savoring the tenderness of it, and the way each caress sent involuntary spasms up the length of her elegant back. She lay horrifically violated and splendidly satisfied before me, one emerald and purple eye staring back with just a hint of love in it.

I knew I should not have felt much over it; Diamond was predisposed to love everyone, but I could not help myself; it had been so long since I had felt actual love without the veil of Corruption. So, I nestled myself beside the Untethered One, and when she sought to debase herself further by licking her nectar from my fingers, I could only giggle, and let her do it as I tasted her anus from my other hand. Her eyes twinkled when I moaned with my suction, and I offered to share my meal.

She accepted, giving me an appraising look as she took each finger. "I guess it shouldn't surprise me that someone named 'Corruption' enjoys her kinks." Diamond mused, then her eyes turned impish, "But I'm not sure what Mom will say when I tell her the Holy Mother fisted me." Then her smile faded, as did mine. Reality came back to us, and its sobriety shattered the moment.

Diamond gave me back my hand, and rolled to her side, facing me as a lover does when the act of love is over. "Did you try to corrupt me?" She asked quietly. "I cannot give you the gift in this place." I muttered, "But I do not think I could anyway. You are a pure spirit, unabashedly yourself. You do not have darkness, for there is no part of you that you conceal.

It is why everyone loves you." "Not everyone loves me." Diamond said bashfully. I caressed one of her blushing apple cheeks, "Lucilla hated you the moment she saw you, for you represented the end of her reign in Julia's heart, but after only a day, Lucilla loved you as the little sister she never had." Diamond gulped, tears welling in her eyes.

"How do you know that?" She asked hoarsely. "Because I am God, and I see all in my kingdom." I answered, "And your mind exists in my kingdom." "You are no god; you said so yourself. You're an idea that can move rocks." "I was." I sighed, rolling onto my back, "Then he made me so much more." ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Part Four: Convection JUSTINA "Why don't you fly?" I asked Jade.

We'd been walking in silence for a long time, and I needed something anything- to distract my mind. "The ash," Jade said, regarding the grey above us, "it will build-up on our feathers. We are grounded until we get out." We continued our trek through the wasteland, silently traversing the glossy remnants of roads, and the melted corpses of buildings. The grey haze began to clear as time passed, and for the first time, I could see the sky. I would've vastly preferred not to.

An immense black cloud hung overhead, stretching the diameter of the city. It seemed to endlessly consume itself from a vacuum at its center, sucking in the black matter around it while the edges turned over to replenish what had been taken. Lightning illuminated the hellish spectacle, revealing tornadoes that touched down and lifted sporadically, probably too weak to do any damage, but that was mostly just my hope.

"What is that?" Jade gasped. "It's the corpse of the sun she made." I said, gawking at the sky. The epicenter of the blast was undoubtedly the vacuum. "What do you mean?" Jade asked. I tapped my bare foot on the glossy surface we stood upon. "The heat capacity of shale is too high for this to have cooled overnight.

We should all be like eggs on a frying pan right now. This whole place should be glowing red." I looked up, "She must've pulled the heat from the ground, and pushed it into the sky." I looked at Jade, and put a hand on her shoulder, "She's still alive." ASTRID The immense mushroom cloud towered over me and before me, stretching into the heavens, breaking through its cumulus neighbors and pluming into the pale blueness overhead.

I could see swirling vortexes in the blackness below, and the occasional lightning bolt flash within. Mistress was in there, I knew she was. I squinted as I approached the blackness, feeling the air turn sour on my wings. The acrid stench met my nostrils, the dry heat my met my flesh, and the sting of the wind hit my eyes. The clouds roiled before me, threatening, violent, larger than mountains, and rising, rising like a great column before stretching to a head in the stratosphere.

If I wasn't careful, I'd be pulled into the uplift, and thrown into the heavens where the air was unbreathable, and too thin for my wings to catch. If I was lucky. Judging by the speed of the clouds, the uplift was powered by a great convective force; it was more likely that I would bake to a crisp.

But if I went in too low, I'd hit the low pressure beneath the uplift, and drop like a stone. There was only one option then; I had to hit the space between, where the meeting of cool and hot air turned the base of the cloud into a turbulent wall of darkness. I closed my span around me, ducked my head, and shot like an arrow into oblivion. Everything was black. I couldn't see my own nose, much less my wings, but I could feel them.

The feathers were catching the airborne particles, and collecting them, making me heavier by the second. If I didn't spread my wings and blow out the residue soon, then I would not be able to later. But if I did that, I risked catching the draft, and being blown into the sky. I kept myself rigid, hearing the air whistle past me, bearing the gut-turning sensation of falling. My heart was pounding in my ears, accelerating with my freefall, like a warning drum of my mortality.

I tested my wings, and they barely shifted from me. I strained, and managed to get them to part from my body, before I eased them back, not wanting to break my aerodynamics.

The air was getting thicker, and the blackness was getting lighter. Soon it was grey, and I could see the outline of my nose. I was covered in ash. It was caked to my face, shelled in my hair, and created a carapace of my wings. I tested my wings again, and they didn't budge. I strained, heaved and twisted, but they didn't move. I could see the ground now. It was barely visible, but it was approaching fast.

I dared to raise an arm, and immediately felt myself catch the wind. The loss of aerodynamics slowed my horizonal velocity, and the ground came at me that much faster. With this much speed, I had no chance to regain my flight if I went into vertical freefall.

If reached back to free my wings, I'd lose all forward momentum, and even if I did free myself, my wings would snap ten different ways when they opened. I growled and snarled, straining with all my might, trying to ignore the countdown in my head. It was useless. I was a missile at terminal velocity, and the air rushing around me trapped my wings just as assuredly as the caked-on ash. It was over. Five. Why the fuck didn't I just walk? Four. This is so typical of me.

Three. Mother was right about me all along. Two. I just fly headfirst without thinking. One. Fuck it. I reached back with both hands, and hit the wind like it a fly to a window. I dropped immediately, my hair flying upward from my head, my guts growing sickeningly weightless, and the ground rising to meet me with terrible certainty. I grabbed the hilt of my sword with both hands, and swung it overhead as hard as I could.

The scabbarded weapon flung my wings open, and the air slammed into me. Snap, crack, tear. I screeched, the pain lancing up the delicate broken bones, shooting from the tearing muscles, burning from the ripped tendons. But I flew. I caught the wind on my broken wings, and I glided through the ash-soaked air with no semblance of control.

I was a slave to the winds, but they were blessedly gentle beneath the cloud. I stumbled forward in an awkward landing, slid across the glassy plane, and came to a skidding stop.

My wings drooped pathetically behind me, too painful to close, and too broken to reopen. They hung jagged and bloody from my back, crippled, useless, and throbbing with pain.

"You only feel one pain at a time, Astrid." I echoed my mother's words, and found them to be true. Though I was broken in a dozen places, my mind focused only on the torn ligaments between my flighted bones.

I compartmentalized the pain, pushed it into the back of my mind, and walked through the wastes as a cripple. BRANDON The immense black cloud was drifting into the heavens, bending at the whim of the wind, torched at the edges by the setting sun. I had left Mom, Dad and Angela to themselves. It was strange, but I'd felt like an outsider in my own family ever since Angela died. Mom and Dad had been crippled with grief, but I couldn't share that grief with them.

To them Angela was gone forever, but to me she'd become closer than ever before. Mom and Dad changed as people through their suffering, while I stayed on the same path. Our lives had diverged in that moment, and with each passing year, they grew further apart. When I stepped out of Arby's inn, I realized that same divergence had happened again. Ever since I'd gone to Drastin, I'd longed to come back to Towerhead.

And now that I was here, looking at the broken-down shacks and derelict farm homes, I realized this place was no longer home. It wasn't just the architecture; it was the people. People I'd known my whole life looked like strangers to me now. They were amassed at the bottom of the hill, not daring to near the golden-armored Ofanians who'd made a perimeter around the inn.

They stared at the winged black beauties with fear and awe, and that sentiment was only more pronounced when their eyes fell on me. They knew me, knew me my whole life, but it was like they didn't recognize me. The feeling was mutual. "How many have come back?" I asked Bianca. "Fifty-five of Two Thousand." Bianca said, her exquisite face drawn in a dour mask, "It is near evening, Your Holiness, and my scouts have all returned.

This… this is all that remains of the Ofanian guard." "I'm so sorry." I said, putting a hand on her shoulder. Bianca winced. I peeled back her shoulder armor to reveal a horrific swath of burnt flesh, open, exposed and weeping with infection, "Holy shit, Bianca!" I exclaimed. "Do not worry about me, Your Holiness." Bianca grimaced.

"How bad is…" I trailed off when I removed the shoulder piece, and saw the continuation of the wound expand down her back. I unstrapped her breast plate, lifted her shirt, and gasped. A burnt miasma hit my nostrils, and tortured heat radiated onto my palms. Bianca's entire back was cooked, the flesh raw and red, some of the sinew exposed.

Her wings remained remarkably unharmed, only the tips of her feathers singed off, but the flight bones that connected to her shoulder-blades were stripped of flesh and muscle. She shuddered with the revelation of her wound, clenching her jaw in a vain attempt to conceal her agony.

"You should've told me." I whispered, barely holding in the contents of my stomach. "There is nothing that can be done." Bianca gulped, staring fixedly ahead, "The Heat Bringer's wounds cannot be healed. I will find a suitable successor for you before I succumb." "Don't give me any of that bullshit; sit your ass down." I ordered, and Bianca reluctantly complied.

I kneeled behind her, clinically inspecting what was surely a mortal wound. I pulled the infection from her first, gratefully ridding the smell she'd concealed in her armor. It wouldn't matter if the lesions wouldn't close though, and Bianca was right; I couldn't heal what Julia burned. Or… hmm… I gently touched Bianca's cooked shoulder, and pristine brown skin marbled over it. She gasped, a different kind of shudder running up her spine.

"Julia isn't bound anymore," I said as I worked my fingers across Bianca's ruined shoulders, "but I am. I'm more powerful than she is, at least relative to what we were before." The skin stitched together across Bianca's back, youthful and radiant, smooth and perfect. When the last grotesque swath of red was closed, Bianca's stiff posture dropped in pure relief. "Thank you, Your Holiness." Bianca gasped. "No. Thank you, Bianca." I said softly, "I owe you everything." Bianca's cheeks flushed with equal parts pride and embarrassment.

I knew the reason for the latter; Bianca's naked back was exposed to me, and though her breasts were hidden by the necklace she'd made of her shirt, the bottoms were evident, shadowing a midriff toned with muscle. I admitted guiltily to myself that I was more than curious about the coloration of her nipples, but I kept my desires concealed as best I could.

Apparently not well enough, for Bianca's eyes caught mine. I expected her to immediately avert her gaze, mumble something, and walk away stiffly to distract herself with her duties, but she did the opposite.

She kept her brown gaze fixed with mine, and she tentatively leaned back until she rested against me. When her weight was pressed to my chest, she let out a breath, and her body relaxed slightly, though I could still see the tension in her shoulders.

"I hope I am not overstepping, You Holiness," Bianca said quietly, "but I would very-much like it if you… put your hands upon me." "Bianca, we talked about this." I frowned, "I won't let you sacrifice a lifetime of honor for a moment of weakness." "I would like a massage." Bianca said, her voice shaking slightly, "There is nothing sexual about a massage, and if I may be so bold, I believe that I have earned it." I could cut the sexual tension that raged in Bianca with a knife, but I didn't vocalize my incredulity.

Valkyries were both terribly transparent, and terribly easy to embarrass; Ofanians more so than the other two, and Bianca was the worst of them. I place my hands on her shoulders, and began gently kneading the tension within them. I parted the sticking sinew, pushed my healing power into the fibers, and slid the overlapping bunches of muscle from each other.

Bianca melted against me, her breath becoming shallow and slow, her entire profile becoming languid. "I have many questions, Your Holiness." Bianca muttered, the trace of a purr sliding from her full lips. "About Angela?" I asked, "Turns out, Diamond had gone to the astral plane, and given Angela her body to take care of." Bianca went suddenly very stiff, her shoulders turning to iron beneath my squeezing palms.

I remembered that Bianca had confided her salacious secret to the woman she thought was Diamond, and I cursed myself for being so untactful. "I-I-I have a confession to m-m-make, Your Holiness!" Bianca stuttered, "Though it is undoubtedly belated, and y-y-you must already know, and think so little of m-m-m-me!" "Shhh." I said, trying to calm her with my massaging fingers, "I don't care that you've been curious, Bianca.

There's no shame in it." "Yes, there is." Bianca hissed, "I betrayed your trust, then I told another." "No one can keep secrets from Angela." I chuckled, "Don't feel guilty about it." "I'm so ashamed." Bianca muttered, her breath shaking. "There's no room for that here." I scolded gently, "I'm fucking my own sister for god's sake; all you did was look through a window." "I did much more than that, Your Holiness." Bianca whispered, "I am a wretched creature." I sighed; there was no use arguing with her.

Bianca shared Julia's need for repentance, but at least she didn't share her fetish for it. "I don't care if you flicked the bean, Bianca. Masturbation isn't against your codes anyway." "I watched Julia penetrate you, and it aroused me to see you violated." Bianca hissed. "I don't need to hear that…" "Seeing a woman humble you made me want to be humbled by other women." Bianca continued relentlessly, her voice breaking. "Sexuality's a spectrum, and all that.

Now, let's just get your shirt back on and…" "Astrid and Jade caught me. I could've fought them, I could've flown away, but I didn't.

I… I let them have me." Bianca confessed, a little too loudly for my liking. The Ofanians at the perimeter glanced backward at us, then in typical Ofanian fashion, they blushed and quickly averted their gaze when they saw the state of their High Guard.

Half-naked and resting between my legs; it wasn't a good look. "Your captains are probably getting the wrong idea." I grunted, trying to push Bianca upright. "No, they're not." Bianca muttered, and a thrill ran up her spine, accompanying the deepening flush of her cheeks. "What are you talking about?" I said, cautiously looking down at her. "Her Eminence, Tera Autumnsong would tease me relentlessly, Your Holiness." Bianca said back, her voice wavering, but her eyes not, "When you were not watching, she would take great delight in making me uncomfortable, mostly about my feelings toward you." "Bianca, stop." I said firmly.

Tera's and Justina's deaths weighed almost as heavily on my mind as Willowbud's. "I do not mean to besmirch her memory." Bianca said softly, "I only mean to relay a piece of wisdom she gave me. She told me, 'Black Beauty, repression does something dark to a woman's desires.

You will find that the very tool you use to guard your honor, will be the undoing of it.'" Bianca's breathing was fast on her lips, "And so it has come to pass for me, for my mind has twisted itself in horrendous knots, and I do not know what to do!" "Bianca, what are you…" I trailed off, and looked at the position she'd put herself in.

It must've been utterly humiliating for her to have her soldiers see her in such a comprising state. Absolutely… shameful. I had inadvertently done to Bianca what Willowbud had done to Astrid, and I hadn't even lifted a finger. "I have always led by example." Bianca whispered, her brown irises topping her eyes, the pupils dilated with desire, "I have built my reputation painstakingly for decades, never making a misstep, always following the codes. Now, with Ofan on the doorstep of annihilation, I must lead my warriors to betray themselves." "You need to repopulate." I muttered, the realization dawning in both of my heads.

"It is a great dishonor to have more than one child, but it must be done. We must forsake our oaths, and open our legs!" Bianca moaned the words now, "This generation of the Ofanian Guard will be a black mark on our history. We will be known as oath-breakers, revelers, and hedonists, no better than succubi!

Our descendants will curse our names and the names they bear, for they will be the names of disgraceful whores!" Bianca spoke with a husky voice, each condemnation of herself and her people arousing her more, until she was squirming with the pleasure of her own shame. Her hands clutched the grass, her back arched from me, and her wings spread wide, catching the setting sun. "We will give ourselves to you, if you so desire." Bianca's voice was dripping, "We will lay with men of your choosing if you wish to see us violated.

We will lay with each other if you wish to see us violate each other. For we will be the disgraced generation," Bianca closed her eyes and licked her lips, "so we may as well fall all the way." I was about to grant Bianca her wish, and give all of Towerhead and the Ofanian Guard a show, when a sound like thunder crashed through the hills. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Interlude Four: Heaven PETRANUMEN "With the help of civilization's greatest minds, Vitanimus and Joy created a window to the limbo between the astral and spiritual planes.

They used concepts and formulas that had to be written in volumes so large they filled libraries, but from that torture of numbers, they cracked the code. I had been left out of this, for Joy and Vitanimus no longer trusted me.

We would only meet when wearing the masks we indulged in, and through that medium, we made a mockery of the love we once had. When we parted, I was left wracked with the guilt of what I had done to our love, and soon, that guilt began to fester.

I could not bear the feeling, and Corruption relieved me of it, so I began to wear Corruption even after my bouts with Vitanimus and Joy. Then I just never took it off. Our passions grew more perverse, devolving with our deteriorating relationship until blood had to be drawn for lust to be compelled.

It was on one such occasion, when I was readying myself by chaining my arms and legs to a fireplace, that Vitanimus and Joy came to me in earnest. "Take that off, Petranumen." Vitanimus said from across the hall. "Strip me of it." I hissed, bending my body in an enticing manner.

It had been millennia since I had seen him without a mask, and it disturbed me. "Mother," Joy said, stepping forward, "enough of this." "I do not know you, girl." I growled at her. She stopped, then gulped, and turned back to her father. "She is too far gone!" Joy insisted, though of what she spoke, I was ignorant. "No." Vitanimus shook his head, "She's just trying to kill her pain. We abandoned her." "She abandoned us!" Joy yelled. "Come over here and fuck me, you wretch!" I snarled from my binds, "I know what you really are!

Give someone a mask, and they will show you their nature!" "Is this who you are, Petranumen?" Vitanimus asked, stepping past our daughter, and stopping a foot away from me, "Or is it just who you think you are?" "What else are we, but our self-perception?" I sneered. "You're not just your darkness." Vitanimus said. "We are all just our darkness." I growled, "You may cover it with lies, but not I! I know the truth. I still UNDERSTAND!" My head dropped, and I heaved a great sob.

Vitanimus's hand was on my cheek, and he tilted my face to be level with his. "I still understand, Petranumen; I never forgot. Take it off." "I cannot." I muttered. "She's too far gone, Father." Joy said, "She'll go mad if she removes it!" "We cannot do it without her, Joy." Vitanimus said softly, cupping my cheek, "And even if she goes mad, I will love her all the more." He brought my face close to his, then planted a gentle kiss on my lips.

Not the hedonistic devouring of our debauchery, nor a cordial peck, but a tender kiss, a promising kiss.

It had been so long since I had tasted one. I let Corruption fall away, and I collapsed in Vitanimus's arms. He held me, then Joy tepidly did the same. "What will you have of me?" I asked them. They had found a way to conquer death. Vitanimus called the method 'tethering.' What you call 'binding' is just the tethering of two souls who have a great affinity for one another.

Vitanimus could use the love a soul has for a soulless thing to prolong life indefinitely, and to bind something without a spirit to the spiritual plane." My vision was filled with Diamond's soft features, her purple-backed emeralds staring softly into mine, her breath caressing my nostrils sweetly.

I raised my hand between us, and she met it, then I interlocked our fingers, marveling at the delicacy of her touch. "The astral and physical planes were like this, you understand." I said, "Intertwined in trillions of different ways." I uncurled my fingers, and she did the same.

Then I pulled away my hand until there was an inch of space between us, "The spiritual plane was like this from other two. Broken, parallel. Perhaps it once was intertwined, but that was before my time." I brought our hands together so that they laid flat upon each other, "This is what Vitanimus and Joy made of the world.

Together, but not connected. The only thing that held them, was the tether." "How did Vitanimus make the worlds go from this," Diamond interlocked our fingers, "to this?" She asked, flattening our palms again.

"There is an astrological phenomenon." I started. "A blood corona sliver." Diamond finished. I nodded. "It happens every thousand years. The astral sun moves out of synch from its physical counterpart. Only for a few hours, but when it did, the cognitive winds died.

Some great cataclysm had caused the temporary imbalance, perhaps the separation of the spiritual plane from the other two; we may never know. Vitanimus and Joy looked through the window during the time of a blood corona sliver, and they realized that the souls carried by their consciousness stayed in limbo. For during that time, this plane was separate from the physical one. Not split, but not together. Laid atop." "Vitanimus and Joy waited another thousand years, then they came to you." Diamond said, "Why did they need you?" "Vitanimus needed two people of immeasurable astral power for his plan to work." I answered, "One to be tethered to the new astral plane, the other to tether the planes together." "By the astral sun." Diamond said, "But if Joy was a water Elemental, then how could she have any affinity for the sun?

Fire is her opposite." "Yes," I muttered, feeling my throat close again, "it was." "Joy thought that the tether between realms was more crucial than the tether to the astral plane. She did not trust me with the responsibility, so she took it upon herself.

We realized long ago that we gained abilities when we dawned new ideas. You call them gifts, but before the worlds split, they were not just of the mind. For when the worlds were one, the ideas of things could control the things themselves, and we truly were gods of power, greed and corruption.

We just needed to find the idea that would give Joy a great affinity for fire. And what is fire, but the antithesis of water? We needed to find the antithesis of Joy. Given her namesake, you might think sadness is her opposite, but even if Joy were the exemplar of her title, you would be wrong. For sadness cannot exist without joy, nor joy without happiness, and bittersweet moments carry both.

They are not opposites, but dependents. The same goes for love and hatred, and indeed, they are often just different steps on the same path. But hatred and joy run counter to each other, for hatred is void of joy, and joy is void of hatred. One cannot exist in your heart if the other is present, so Joy decided Hatred must be tried. I remember when she first put it on. It fit her so well. "I'm not sure about this…" Joy muttered, staring at the red velvet hanging in the atrium.

I dared not touch it. "If I put that on, what would I become, I wonder?" Vitanimus mused, studying it, "Would the life I create become twisted and evil?" "Would the rocks I form become jagged and treacherous?" I pondered. "It is dangerous." Joy said, "Power, Corruption and Greed are terrible vices, but they are of desire. This… this is of loss. I fear it." "You don't have to do it." I said, resting my hands upon her shoulders. She did not flinch like she had done so many times before, and I was glad.

It had been a millennium since we'd last worn ideas and ravaged each other, and time had stitched the wounds. There were occasions when we caught ourselves eyeing each other, and indeed, Joy would sometimes dawn the cloak of Lust to sate her feminine needs with Vitanimus, but he would not take the mantle of Power, but of Passion. Yes, before your mother claimed it for herself, the man you know as 'Satan' was the first Passion.

Their love was beautiful to witness, like art of tender sucks and gracefully-writhing bodies, but I did not partake. I did not trust myself. "I have to." Joy smiled ruefully over her shoulder. "We've tried Wrath, Fury, and Anger already." Vitanimus sighed, "All of the 'fiery' emotions. Only Hatred is left." "I can do this, Mother." Joy said.

"I know you can put it on." I muttered, taking her face in my hands, "But what if you cannot take it off?" "I will." She said. Then she pressed her closed lips to mine, and we shared a platonic kiss. As always, there was the hint of carnal desire, and we both repressed the urge to open our lips and exchange tongues.

We broke with that shared secret between our eyes, and the memory of our desire radiating from our smiling lips. Then Joy took a deep breath, and touched Hatred. It wrapped around her like it had a life of its own, clinging to her limbs, seeming to wrestle her the floor. She did not scream nor struggle, but gave us a look that was meant to assure us she had it under control. The cloth molded itself to her body, wrapped around her neck like a constricting boa, and plastered to her face.

She collapsed onto the floor, limp and lifeless. Vitanimus and I ran to her, but then stopped when we heard the sound. It was a giggle, one I'm sure you know. Girlish and childlike, and void of any joy.

She rose slowly, stretching her neck this way and that, staring from beneath imperiously-lidded red eyes that swam with her contempt.

"Mother." She smiled, the word coming from her like an apple with a razor hidden in the core. "Hatred." I replied, and Joy's eyes flickered their affirmation. "Can you create fire?" Vitanimus asked beside me. "I can." Joy grinned, and snapped her fingers to reveal blue flame. "Wonderful." Vitanimus gasped. He turned to me, excitement brimming in his eyes, "We can save them, Petranumen! We can save them all!" "We can kill them." Joy giggled, her body wreathing with flame, "We can kill them all." And she hurled the flame at us, a gout in the shape of a heart, anatomical and beating with sapphire heat.

I put up a wall just in time, and Vitanimus circled it, riding atop a charging mastodon. Joy did not care a damn for the creature's size. She set the wooly beast aflame, and Vitanimus leapt away.

I encased my daughter in stone, and she melted it. Then I encased her in metal, and melted that too, each attempt met with that giggle. Even unbound and inexperienced, the Elemental of fire surpassed my destructive capabilities by orders of magnitude.

Remembering the flame retardants Vitanimus had once constructed, I tried to suppress her with sand, but I could never do much with sand, and the attack was ineffectual. Joy lashed at me with a whip of flame, and it struck me across the ribs." I paused, leaning backward to show Diamond the scar that still crossed me below the armpit.

She ran her fingers softly over the ridge, and I felt the spot prickle pleasantly with gooseflesh. "But Vitanimus was bound, and Joy was not, so shouldn't he have been able to heal this?" Diamond asked. "He did, but I kept it as a reminder." I answered, lowering my arm, "We were playing with fire, after all." "I felt mortality for the first time then, and I screamed my warning to Vitanimus.

He stopped in his tracks, gawking at the wound in my side. Joy had a clean shot at him, but she did not take it. She just giggled at our horrified expressions; I guess simply knowing she could kill us was all she wanted.

Or perhaps she just wanted us to know it. She strutted toward me, her gait languorous, but off somehow, like she had a pain in her hip, and she desired to feel it to the fullest. She stopped before me, and drew her thumb across my trembling lips. There she placed the same closed-mouth kiss we shared earlier, and upon her withdrawal, she whispered, "Now you will remember my hatred every time we express our love." Then she put something in my hand.

It was smooth, and when I ran my thumb down its length, I felt a sharp pain. I looked down, and realized I had split my skin upon an obsidian dagger, one that she had formed with her heat and my rock. "In case you ever get sick of the old man." Joy winked, "Or yourself." Then, she changed back." I stopped my story, and Diamond saw that I was shaking.

She wrapped me in her embrace, pulling my face into the supple warmth of her breasts, and my body in the elegant curves of her form. It was not sexual this time, though her nakedness was appealing.

I rotated in the hold until she was nestled to my back, her manhood secured between my cheeks, but not hard. She pet my hair soothingly, and rested her lips upon my crown. "It worked, didn't it?" Diamond asked. "It did." I muttered. A tear was rolling down my cheek, and its path lead to the corner of my mouth. I tasted the salt, and wondered if I was strong enough to recount the end of my story.

Even with Diamond's love surrounding me, I could feel Guilt calling from across realms, her voice clear through the ruin of Corruption. There a was a distant boom in my psyche, and it echoed emptily through my mind and across worlds. A spire had fallen. Boom, another. Boom, another. Boom, another.

The sound cascaded like thunder, and I tensed in preparation. The sound stopped, dwindled its warning echoes, then died.

I relaxed. "You were tethered to the astral plane, and you became its architect." Diamond said. "I did." I said, "I created the gate of Fedar for which the souls could pass through, and Vitanimus tethered Hatred to the astral sun.

Joy changed back when the blood corona sliver ended, and created a bridge across the tether from Fedar to my new domain. The tethering cost us our Elemental gifts, but gave us new power. I was given autonomy over the astral plane, and with my mind, I built it anew.

I organized emotions and concepts into realms, and those thoughts too basic for such grandeur were given purpose in other ways. What you call 'astral gemstones' are just my way of using my affinity for rock to capture simple thoughts. When the astral plane was safely domesticated, I built this place. You call it 'Chaos,' but that is a poor translation. I called this place 'Freedom,' but those on earth called it, 'Heaven.' We had done it; we had beaten death. Joy created her own realm in a corner of my kingdom, and acted as shepherd for the souls that traversed her tether.

Vitanimus would often use that tether to walk between planes, and for a thousand more years, we lived in paradise. Joy never again needed to wear the mask of Hatred, and Vitanimus had long-since stopped wearing masks of his own. He did not need to be Passion for his daughter, for the heavens were filled with suitable bachelors. I dare-say Joy retained her gluttonous nature, for she horded lovers like so many treasures.

I made sure to knock before I entered her abode, lest I get swept into one of her infamous orgies. I do admit to losing my footing on occasion, and on such occasion, I might've felt a familiar tongue in my nethers, or tasted a familiar set of open lips. We never spoke of the things we did to each other in her private rooms, for we had learned to keep aspects of our lives separate. I could be her mother for most of our waking moments, and her lover when mischievous desires beckoned us." I smiled at the memories.

So many. "Those one thousand years were filled with more joy and love then all the hundreds of thousands I had lived before." I chuckled to myself, then my mirth slowly dwindled, "I should have known it would not last." ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Part Five: Elements WILLOWBUD I wasn't sure where I was going.

West, I guessed. It was cold now, oddly so. The glassy surface beneath my feet was cool to the touch, and the wind that swept past me was more like the dry bluster of fall than the humid caress of summer. I licked my lips, tasting Justina on their chapped surfaces, and I huddled in my arms, bending against the wind.

My encounter with my cousin had been… less than jovial. I remembered who she was, and I remembered what I'd done to her, but she still seemed like a stranger to me. And having a stranger jump on your face and make you eat her insides can be a traumatic experience to say the least. I'd expected her to cut my throat, or at least enslave me. It was only after the ordeal that I remembered what I was, and realized my fears were unfounded, but terror has a funny way of driving off rationality.

But I was used to terror, as that was all Willowbud knew, so I shook it off, and added it to the growing list of psychological scars, each successive one less painful than the one before it. I hoped Justina found some semblance of peace, and I also hoped to never see her again. I was off to nowhere, and feeling pretty good about going there. Goddamn, it was cold though. I looked down, and realized my feet were sticking to the glossy ground, glued to it but the cooled moisture beneath my soles.

I pried them free, and felt the faint burn of frost on them. I frowned, and listened to the rock. Nothing. The ash that blanketed the world dulled the subterranean noises like snow dulled sound. I listened closer. Did I hear footsteps? One foot was dragging slightly behind the other, like its bearer was limping. I squinted into the haze. It had cleared somewhat since I'd first emerged, and through it, I could see the faint outline of a woman. ASTRID I squinted into the haze, not sure if I was seeing anything.

My descent had thrown ash into my eyes, and at terminal velocity, even something as fragile as ash was like needles. My binocular vision was blurred at a distance, and I couldn't make out what was a hundred yards in front of me, much less the faded horizon. I grunted and limped along, one foot dragging slightly behind the other. I'd twisted my ankle when I landed, and now that pain was at the forefront of my mind, reminding me of its existence with each stumbling step.

It was colder than it had been. Much colder, actually. I glanced up at the black cloud above, the edges continuously turning-over so that the base could consume itself.

Lexy Roxx das Erwachen der Macht

No sun could shine though that, I supposed, but this cold seemed… unnatural. "The wings of war are out the door, they've left their feathers on the floor.

Keep your eyes on the horizon, and you may see Iona soar." I sung softly, very aware of the desolate silence around me. My voice didn't echo as it would across a normal plateau, but died in the deadening piles of ash.

"Hello?" a small, familiar voice answered my song. I spun around, and there she was. The silhouette of her slender body shown through the haze, her horns standing from her head, her familiar girlish features clarifying with each step. A broad grin stretched across my face, and I limped over to her.

WILLOWBUD She was favoring one leg over the other. Her hair was covered in ash, her body was bloody and haggard, and her face bore a haunted look. I hardly recognized her, but she recognized me immediately. I could see it in the smile that stretched across her cheeks, in the excited gait of her limp, and in the pure hated shining from her emerald eyes. "Hello, Willowbud." Julia grinned at me, her voice ragged and torn. Her eyes were puffy and bloodshot, her face was crusted with blood, and she was so pale.

The fear started as a prickling along the back of my neck, and grew slowly, stirring in my belly, making my mouth dry. My feet were plastered to the surface, and they squelched when I pulled them free. "It is 'Willowbud' now, isn't it?" Julia said, approaching slowly.

Her eyes were dancing in their sockets; grief, hatred, and mania all playing behind her lenses. "I'm sorry." I managed to say, my tongue sticking to the roof of my mouth. "Sorry?" Julia giggled, "That's not what you're supposed to say. You're supposed to say, 'thank you.'" Julia was hustling over to me now, moving as fast as her limping legs would carry her, "I saved you, after all.

I did what I promised I would do. You're free, Willowbud!" Julia's smile was a grimace, "And after I sacrificed so much to make it happen, you'd think I could get one, fucking, THANK YOU!" I barely got underground before a sheet of sapphire heat blasted overhead. The earth around me grew hot, and I tunneled beneath it as fast as I could, driving down, compelled by manic terror.

I could feel the fire against my back, and I knew she was pouring it into my hole. I closed it behind me, and had a moment of reprieve, but then I felt it again, ambient, sweltering. The rock around me was sweating, expelling its water. Soon, it was steaming. I raced upward, the heat becoming worse with every second, making the air heavy, singeing the skin that touched the rock's surfaces.

I'd never been prone to claustrophobia before, but in that moment, literally cooking alive in the confined darkness of bedrock, I lost it. I needed air. I burst from the ground, my rock shell opening, the cool wind singing euphorically on my flesh.

I put up a wall just in time before another sheet of heat hit me. The current of flame blazed all around me, split by the iron shield I raised. I reinforced it rapidly, turning the slab into wave-break, pointing the edge at the direction of the oncoming flame. The fire stopped, the roar of infernal wind dying down, leaving only the soft sound of woman crying about fifty yards away. "Have you ever come to the realization that you're the worst thing to happen to everyone you love?" Julia wept.

I couldn't see her, but I could tell she was approaching me, "Of course you have. In that way, we are still very-much sisters, Willowbud." The ash around us had been blown away by the blast, giving me a clear picture to where she was.

I could feel her heartbeat, and it terrified me how steady it was. "And I would like to meet this spiritual sister of mine!" Julia proclaimed, "I want to know if everyone else was worth one you." She was thirty yards away now. I doubted she had the reflexes to stop my attack, but I wasn't sure if I had the will. I felt the point of my wave-break through the rock, and noted how sharp it was.

It would slice through the air like a knife, and slice through the Heat Bringer with equal ease. But what if it didn't work? What if left me exposed? What if she got mad at me? I was stuck in my indecision, perpetually just about to do it, but never taking the plunge. She was ten yards away when she next spoke. "But you must be worth it, Willowbud." Julia said from the other side of my wind break.

When she spoke next, she was talking to me from inside the rock, "The Holy Mother gave me a mission to save you, and she is never wrong." The surface I was pressed to became suddenly hot, and I stumbled back as Julia emerged from it, turning it molten with her aura of sapphire.

I tripped, fell on my ass, and vainly scrambled away on my heels and palms as she advanced. The power glowed from her hate-filled eyes, so bright that her pupils and irises were lost in it. "That was what I thought." Julia's voice was barely a whisper, her footsteps were melting the rock beneath her, "But I was wrong, Willowbud.

You see, at first I thought the devil had deceived me, but now that I think about it, that's just as arrogant as thinking I've been doing God's will." I stumbled on the remnants of a foundation, and fell onto my back, "The most likely truth, when you really think about it," Julia was laughing now, and it was the same sonorous laugh she always sung, but tainted, "is that God and Satan JUST DON'T GIVE A SHIT!" I put up a shell of shale just as Julia blasted it with a vortex of fire.

I could feel the rock melting away by the foot, and I abandoned my protection for subterranean safety. She wasn't far behind. She forced me to the surface once again, and sent waves flame across the plateau. I dug my heels into the black glass, gritted my teeth, and uprooted a thousand feet of rock. It towered between us, a hundred-feet wide and three hundred feet thick, the surface and sides made of the bedrock, the top frosted with the fire-treated gloss.

It was an enormous expense, and it left me feeling weak in the knees, but it bought me time. Julia didn't have an unlimited reservoir anymore; she'd get just as tired. I hoped. ASTRID "Justina!" I cried, limping over to her. She sprinted across plateau and flung herself into my arms. Being Justina, the embrace was immediately complimented with a wet, invasive, tongue-tangling kiss. I didn't mind. How she kept her lips moisturized in this ash-filled dryness was just another mystery of the succubi.

"Oh my god, Astrid!" Justina squealed when she pulled from me, "How did you get out?" "I grabbed your mom and-" "Mom's alive?!" Justina exclaimed.

I nodded, and savored the most joyful smile I'd ever seen stretch across Justina's face. The moment faded when I remembered that I'd left a suicidal Tera alone on an outcropping. I didn't think she'd do it, but I needed to get Justina to her as fast as possible.

"I need to take you to her." I said, hoisting Justina into my arms, and wincing. "Astrid," Justina said softly, looking at my partially-closed broken wings, "what did you do?" "Astrid Skyborne, is that you?" another familiar voice called. I looked up to see the silver-streaked spans and black robes of the Breytans. There were so few of them. "Jade?" I asked. Jade Tao emerged from the flock, looking worn, but not hurt. She smiled tiredly, and we grasped forearms in greeting.

If we'd been in a more private setting, I'm sure we would've done more. "You were foolish to have taken flight in such conditions." Jade frowned over my shoulder. "I've been a fool for some time now." I smiled ruefully back, "Any word on your charge?" "We haven't found her yet," Jade's frown deepened, "but Her Eminence suspects she is alive.

Astrid, there's something you need…" Jade trailed off. The horizon exploded with sapphire, illuminating the haze of distance and silhouetting the melted structures before it. The light dimmed, then shone again, brighter than before. A sound like soft thunder followed it, and rolled across the glassy plateau, before dying in the muting blanket of ash.

The light dimmed, and then ignited a third time, so bright that it seemed to burn the haze away. The light stopped abruptly, as though hitting a wall. Half the horizon was of sapphire flame, the other was a dim haze, and the dividing line seemed to stretch into the black cloud above. I looked at Jade, and she looked at me.

Our grips tightened on each other's forearms, and our congenial smiles turned to grimaces. "Alright, guys…" Justina said cautiously beside us, "we're better than them.

You two are old friends, and we can't-" My sword was out a second before Jade's was, and she had to duck beneath the decapitating strike.

Her katana sung forth, and slashed at my knees, but I'd anticipated the strike. I leapt the blade, grunting as the pain sung from my ankle, and I landed awkwardly, but steadily. Our steel clashed again, Jade's strike meaning to split my face in two, mine meaning to run through her neck. We stared at each other from between our crossed blades, our faces set, our wills undeniable.

It didn't matter that we'd known each other all our lives; this was instinct. Jade spun out of the lock, her blade grinding on mine until the tips sang their departure.

She accompanied the spin with a low slash, identifying immediately that my footing was off. I dropped my blade down, caught her slash and swiped upward with all my might. I was stronger than Jade, and she was flung backward, her arms splaying wide, her sword hand compelled skyward.

I tried to run her through, but she flapped back, buffeting me with their air of her wings, forcing me to bring myself in. My broken wings wouldn't close. They caught the wind of Jade's attack, and I was thrown onto my back. I put my sword up just in time to stop from being split in half, and my eyes connected with Jade's once again, our crossed blades between us.

She was growling, a string of spit leaving the corner of her mouth as she willed herself downward, slowly pushing the edge of my own weapon against my chest. My knee barreled into her crotch, and my forehead crashed into hers.

She cried out, her concentration broken for a moment, and I used that moment to spin us over. Jade was on her back, her defenses were wide open, but I didn't get the chance to finish her. The other Breytans had made their way to me, and surrounded me with steel. On a good day, I could've taken maybe ten of them, but today was not one of those days, and there were hundreds. "I still beat you, Jade." I grinned down at her, "Even with broken wings and a bad ankle, I'm still better." "So, you are." Jade smiled back, "But I have the numbers, Astrid.

Put your sword down." "We're at war." I kept my smile glued to my face, "Breytans don't take prisoners of war; they cut their heads off." "Surrender is cowardice, but I know you are no coward. I can make an exception for you." Jade's smile was equally stiff. I narrowed my eyes at her, my friend and competitor of a lifetime, and I saw the truth.

"You can make an exception for me," I said slowly, "but will you?" Jade's smile peeled back. "Iona is untouched. Your horde is at full strength, and mine is but a tenth. You must understand that I cannot let Iona's greatest daughter go; she is my greatest threat." "I understand." I muttered.

"An honorable death for us both, old friend." Jade dropped her head in resignation, and tilted her chin to expose her neck. "For one of us, old friend." Then I spun upward, struck Jade's face with a booted foot, and decapitated two Breytans with the backhanded follow-through.

A third woman's face was slashed in half by the final arc of the motion, and forth had the top of her head sliced clean off. The rest were on me in a second. I ducked a swipe, cut off a leg, and spun with all my speed, bringing my sword around in a low, wide arc.

My great sword was longer then their katanas by almost two feet, and my reach was better by several inches. I gave myself some breathing room, and disemboweled one girl who'd been too ambitious for her own good. Her guts plopped from her belly as she stood, and she gawked at them for a moment, standing in stasis before the realization came. Then she dropped to her knees, the horror and pain corrupting her face, and the manic, primal terror taking her mind, washing away any semblance of who she was.

But her shrill screams fell on deaf ears, for her sisters stared back at me with faces set in stone. The dying were livelier than the living when Valkyries went to war. The Breytans inched forward in unison. I slowly rotated, holding my blade outward, letting them know where my reach was. They took another tentative step forward, not one woman breaking out of stance. They were at the edge of my reach now, but I didn't dare risk a swing.

I needed them to get closer, where the pressing of their shoulders would limit mobility. It would leave me exposed, but I didn't have any illusions that I'd be getting out of this.

I just wanted the surviving Breytans to sing songs about me. Pursuing your glory to the very end, Astrid? Your mother scowls down upon you. I smiled. JULIA Willowbud would not fight me. Every move she made was a defensive one, every counter she offered was simply an attempt to get away. I could see the terror in her eyes, a look that seemed wholly out of place in that face.

Night Eyes would've fought me tooth and nail, never going on the defensive, always attacking. Night Eyes didn't know she had limits, but Willowbud didn't dare test them. I sent a spiraling gout of flame at her, and she created a cube around herself. I heated its surface until it was glowing red, and she quickly jettisoned the form in favor of a sphere. She rolled away like a hamster in its ball, gliding along the glossy plane with surprising speed. I created jets of my hands and feet, and rocketed after her.

I was slower than before; much slower. I could barely keep up with Willowbud, and when I got to her, I didn't have any reserves to spare. I dropped to the ground, panting heavily, grinded my teeth as I recovered, and watched the Earth Former's ball grow smaller and smaller. I pulled the heat from the ground, replenishing myself as quickly as possible, then I directed what I'd stolen from Willowbud's precious rock, and threw back at her. A sapphire lightning bolt erupted from my fingertips, created fractals in the air, snaked tendrils to the ground, then struck the ball with a deafening crack.

A shockwave pulsed across the glassed plateau, and when the dust cleared, I was greeted with the sight of a little nymph shakenly getting to her feet. That shot would've vaporized her if I still had Lucilla. I didn't have the strength left for another one; I barely had the strength to stand. I limped across the plateau, and Willowbud limped the other way. We hobbled like old women as we regained our strength. "Run!" I screamed hoarsely at her, "It's all you can do!" She didn't respond.

If anything, my voice only spurred her flight. The ground beneath me was beginning to dull with frost, the air around me was chill to the flesh, but I didn't care. The heat was building within me. I stopped, threw my arms forward, and sent a tsunami of sapphire flame across the plateau.

Willowbud put up another thousand-foot wall, and my wave crashed upon it, but it did not die. It rose, climbing the wall like gravity had turned on its axis, and it spilled over the other side. The wall collapsed backward, falling in one piece like a massive domino, and I barely got off the ground in time before the impact occurred.

The world shook, the glass plane shattered, and my wave was blown to the winds by the force of the moving air. I was propelled twenty yards back, my jets sputtering in the bluster. When the dust finally settled, there was no sign of the Earth Former.

There was only a great slab whose surface was charred and melted, and the fractured web of glass beneath it. ASTRID I stumbled back, catching one strike against my gauntlet, wincing as I felt the metallic glove split. My bare hand felt the cool air, then my bare knuckles met the attacker's jaw, then my sword's pommel met her nose until it caved. She gurgled, eyes rolling stupidly in her sockets, and she hit the ground, clutching at her exposed sinuses.

I ducked just as a blade sang over my head, then I summersaulted forward as another came for my calves. I rolled out of the strike, and into a wall of swords. Three pierced my wings, and one took me along the shoulder, leaving a bloodless, pink gash. I screamed, the pain not yet registering, only the manic rage of battle compelling me.

I flung backward as they sliced downward, and my already-crippled wings were cut to ribbons. The white feathers were stained scarlet, and the sinew hung from the broken bones grotesquely. I reared around with the full force of my wrath, and separated two women from their hips. They shrieked a horrible, animalistic sound, their eyes wide and panicked, their mouths red with the vomit of their ruptured bellies.

I didn't have time to end their hell; I was going for the record. The greatest number of Valkyrie kills committed by another Valkyrie was when High Guard Eira Sunscraper of Iona slew forty-three Ofanians in the battle of Rockford Crossing.

Now, if I could just take three of them at a time, maybe I could… my train of thought was interrupted by the edge of a katana. It sliced into my forearm, cut through the muscle, and clanged against the bone.

Even the adrenaline couldn't dull that blow. I screeched, almost as loudly as the poor souls I'd halved, and I dropped my sword.

I rolled away as four katanas sliced downward, then I picked up one of the oriental short-swords, and flung it handle-over-blade into the attackers. The hilt stopped against a woman's clavicle, the blade swaying behind her. She fell sideways into her sisters, and I had just enough time to reach out with my good hand, and pick up my people's sword. I held the sword tightly, the knuckles whitening against the handle, but I couldn't feel it in my grip. I came to the sudden realization that my hand, my good hand, was lying on the ground.

It didn't seem like my hand anymore. I could see the tattoos and the veins I knew so well, but it didn't seem like it belonged to me. It was quite odd. I barely registered what had happened before I felt something cold in my back, and a shining blade was sticking out of my shoulder. Then I lost feeling in my right wing, then my left wing, then in my left foot, then in my left leg below the knee.

Then they were on me, black robes surrounding me, shining steel flicking up to the black sky. "Stop!" I heard a familiar voice yell.

I looked up to see four women poised to take my head off. I looked behind me, and realized I could see quite a lot more than I was used to. My wings no longer obstructed the view, and that view showed me a twice-severed tattooed leg, and the embroidered handle of a katana pressed to the hilt in my shoulder blade. I brought my stumpy forearm upward, and scowled. The tattoo of Tera's sultry silhouette had been decapitated; that would be a hard piece to explain to curious fans.

Are we in denial? My conscious asked. Blood pooled from the wound in my shoulder, reddening the white and gold armor my mistress had given me. It was still a pristine piece of clothing, still starkly white and shining gold, but now it was splattered with meat and red. Mistress wouldn't be happy about that. Actually, she'd probably find it funny. You're in denial. But no; I knew what was happening, and I knew what was going to happen.

"I will do it." The familiar voice said. Jade Tao walked forward, the sword of her people held in her hand. "How many did I get?" I asked. My voice was oddly calm. "Forty-two." Jade said, reaching down to pick up my sword. "Shit!" I groaned. "Your mercy cost you, old friend." Jade smirked, placing the sword in my useless, but connected hand, "And you told me you weren't merciful." "I needed someone to tell my story." I laughed, tasting iron, "Who better than the High Guard herself?" "They will sing about you until the end of times." Jade winked, then stood upright, and raised her sword, "Are you ready, old friend?" "We never are." I muttered, and bowed my head.

You were a failure and a disappointment. My conscious whispered as Jade raised her weapon overhead. I couldn't disagree. There was a scuffle, a shout, and a sudden clang of metal. Who was interrupting my honorable last moment? I looked up, and screwed up my face in confusion. For no reason at all, the Breytan warriors in the back had started hacking away at their sisters. The attackers' movements bore none of the grace or skill of the Valkyrie, but were brutish, simple motions, like they'd forgotten all their training.

Their eyes were violet. Justina Autumnsong was racing through the Breytan ranks, brushing her hands on their exposed necks before nimbly maneuvering to the next. She darted beneath the swing of one sword, yelped as another barely missed her belly, then she sprinted right for the center.

She left a trail of chaos in her wake, her possessed minions swinging haphazardly at their brethren. Jade turned on her heel and sprinted into the chaos, leaving me alone in the middle of it. I couldn't see Justina anymore, but I could follow her path by the sudden turn of black-haired heads. The path abruptly stopped, and a terrible, very non-Valkyrie shriek split the air. Before I could discern what had happened, a pair of strong arms hoisted me up, pinned me against a strong body, and I was launched into the sky, the sword of Iona falling from my useless hand.

"Master told me to take you far away." A Breytan voice said in my ear. I looked down, but I could not see the bronze figure of my savior. What I did see, was a wide circle of fallen black robes with a me-sized space in the center. There were so few of the great Breytan warriors left, and their numbers were only dwindling as the possessed fighters hacked at their brethren.

I heard Justina's agonized shriek on the wind, and her slaves suddenly halted their attacks. I grimaced, and looked at the horizon where the flashes of blue flame had met the shadows of rock.

There was only smoke now. She's still alive. She has to be. "Take me there." I said, pointing with my remaining forefinger, "That's far away." WILLOWBUD Down, down, down, I dug, the earth crumbling before me and reforming behind me, my breaths shallow and hot, my heart thundering in my ears. I just needed to go deeper. She couldn't find me down here.

The confined space was making breathing difficult, so I shot my arms forward, and an immense tunnel was created before me. I rested my back against the wall behind me, and propelled it forward, moving so fast that my lips peeled back, and my cheeks flapped. Though I was not exerting myself, I was getting tired. My reservoir of power was dwindling with every deific action I took, making me weaker, and slower.

Julia couldn't chase me forever; I could outlast her. I hoped. I accelerated, pouring everything into going faster, further, deeper. My body was numb, my extremities were cold, my heartbeat was slowing even as my panic grew. Just a little longer.

Just a little longer, and I'd be safe. She wouldn't find me. She couldn't. I drained myself until my head was throbbing, my mouth was dry, and my heart drummed at sluggish, off-beat cadence, then I dropped limply to the cold stone.

My gasping breath echoed in the darkness, accompanied by the soft drip of water. Drip, drip, drip. I tried to match my breathing to the rhythm of the sound, tried to pull air into my hungry lungs, and push blood into my starving limbs. Drip, breathe, drip, breathe. It was an oddly soothing coupling of sounds.

It brought my mind into focus, and set my heart into a slow, but steady beat. Drip, breathe, drip, breathe, drip, breathe, drip, sizzle. "No." I whispered, "Impossible." Drip, sizzle, drip, sizzle, sizzle, sizzle, sizzle.

The comforting darkness slowly peeled away. The rock above me was brightening, turning red, then purple, the sapphire. The molten stone dripped from the center of the illumination, pooling a yard away from me, running like molasses.

Little toes emerged from the melted ceiling, then feet, the calves, thighs, penis, pelvis, belly, breasts, neck, chin, mouth, nose, eyes. I wanted to scramble away, I wanted to dive deeper into the rock, but I had nothing left in me. She dropped before me, her bare feet splashing the molten rock from its pool, speckling my limp form with scalding heat.

I only groaned. "How?" I hissed. "I see through flame like you see through rock." Julia sat cross-legged beside me, and brushed her fingers across my lower back, where her brand raised the skin, "You still have my fire in you. On the surface you're invisible to me, but down here, where the sun has never touched the stone, you are a candle in the dark." Night Eyes would've had a snarky comment, but I didn't. I only had terror. Like an insect in the spider's web, I lay limply and defeated while the predator decided how she would feed.

My resignation didn't ease my fear; it only heightened it. This was the end, and I never before wanted so badly to live. My heart thundered back to its wild, rapid rhythm, but its pump did not compel my limbs into action. They were rubber and useless, as sapped of strength from my terror as they'd been from my flight. I felt warmth between my legs, and realized I was pissing myself. "Please." I blubbered, "Mercy." "Mercy…" Julia cooed the word, her fingers trailed slowly back and forth along my spine.

"The Holy Mother would want you to be merciful." I pleaded, staring up at her. "The Holy Mother can't see us down here, Willowbud." Julia said softly. There was no mercy in those emerald eyes. Only a steady, calm hatred. I should've met my end up above, when her hate was hot. She would take her time with me.

I felt heat begin to radiate from her touch. It started as a pleasant warmth, then grew steadily hotter. Back and forth her fingers traced, and hotter and hotter they became. I couldn't thrash, couldn't twist, couldn't even roll over.

I could only scream, anticipating the pain that would come, possessed by some instinct to expel useless, terrible sound from my exhausted lungs.

Julia stopped. "What is this thing?" She asked, the contempt dripping from her voice, "What is this thing that begs, and screams, and runs away?" "Lucilla would want you to be merciful." I tried, sobbing the words. Julia's caressing hand ceased her motions. When she spoke next, her voice was dead.

"If you say her name again, I will scar every surface of you with it. I will make patterns of her name across your flesh like the patterns she wore upon hers." "I'm sorry." I barely said, my head dropping to the stones.

"You are." Julia answered, "You are the sorriest thing I've ever seen." "Mercy. Please, mercy!" I cried, my voice straining, then breaking. I whimpered onto the stones, "I don't want to die." "You're not the first woman who's begged me for her life." Julia chuckled ruefully, "And I loved Passion, Willowbud.

I hate you." "It wasn't me; it was Night Eyes! It was Corruption!" I hissed, knowing it to be a lie. It was me. It was me without pretense, and I longed to be her again. She would've fought. She would've laughed in the face of death. "Maybe it was. Maybe you're innocent." Julia ran her hand through my hair, "Maybe you're just a terrified little girl who's stuck with the memories and choices of another woman." Julia put her lips against my ear, "But that woman isn't here, Willowbud.

You are." And with that, Julia scooped a handful of molten rock, and hovered it above my back. Drip, sizzle, scream. The droplet splattered between my shoulders, pooling, then burning in, eating through layer after layer of flesh.

Drip, sizzle, scream. I could smell it now, like pork fat on a cast iron pan. Drip, sizzle, scream, whoosh, clang, screech. Julia shot upright, her head rearing to the hole in ceiling, her hands flinging back as her chest jutted violently forward.

Behind her, I saw what looked like a human woman, but it was hard to tell. Gore and blood covered her, one leg was missing below the knee, one hand was missing halfway up the forearm, and a brutal hole was opened in her muscular shoulder.

A thin blade stuck loosely from that hole, the shining edge wet with fresh Heat Bringer blood. Julia twisted and shrieked, trying to claw at something behind her. Her back wrenched, and I saw a vicious slice that ran diagonally from shoulder to hip, deep enough the expose the muscle beneath.

She thrashed in her agony for a moment longer, then exploded. The double-amputee flung herself atop me, gurgling a scream as light blasted around her. I could smell the burning now. It filled the cavern, filled my nostrils, filled my head.

It was horrible, almost as horrible as the duet of shrieks coming from their mouths. Julia writhed for a moment longer, then blasted upward, cooking what was left of the woman atop me.

My savior heaved a few choking breaths, then went limp atop me. I couldn't see her face. She was a silhouette against the dim light, her scalp exposed and weeping, only the faint tuft of blonde hair left just above her forehead. I reached behind her, and shivered when my hand grazed her back, or what used to be her back. I recoiled, and in so doing, I touched something. A feather, barely hanging from the two inches of bone she had left of her right wing.

A white feather. Suddenly, the body atop me felt extremely familiar. "No." I muttered, "No, no, no, no, no!" I rolled her over, and her face caught the sun. Her stoic brow was relaxed, her steely eyes were dull, and her luscious lips were parted, with no breath passing from them. "Why did you do it?" I whimpered, but I knew the answer. She loved me. She loved me more than anyone ever had, and I'd taken that love, and destroyed her with it. And even after I'd raped her, tortured her, and ruined her, she still loved me with all her heart, and that was what tore mine to pieces.

There had been one moment in my life, one single day where I'd been whole. It was that day on the Gratoran Wall, when there was nothing but her golden body lined with the silver of the sun. Now she was lined with the char of her own flesh, and I felt that one good memory blacken.

"I'm sorry." I whispered, even more desperately than when I'd been begging for my life. My tears wetted the bosom that I'd rested my head upon for so many nights. I rested my head their now, my mind swirling in a vortex of grief and exhaustion. I was just so drained. I just… I just… needed to… sleep… shadow… red eyes… ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Interlude Five: A Subtle End PETRANUMEN "I was in this very room, lying upon this very bed.

Joy's body was tangled with mine, limbs splayed in the languor after passion. We had not dawned the masks for millennia, and it had been nearly as long since we had felt such urges. We did not need them to express our love anymore. Our white hair and white flesh shown truly from us, and our white eyes connected above blissful smiles.

"Your breath smells like shit." Joy smirked over her shoulder at me. "But your anus tastes so delicious." I sniggered back, then blew air through pursed lips. Joy crinkled her nose, then stuck her tongue out me, and I took the opportunity to suck her presented appendage. "See?" I chuckled after withdrawing, "Absolutely decadent." "You whore." Joy giggled. "What is that poem you wrote about the pot and the kettle?" I laughed teasingly.

"Pot said to the kettle, 'look at your hue, it is the ill that defines you.' And kettle, incensed, said wrathfully back, 'then we're both sick, for we're both hopelessly black.' Pot scoffed with a huff and said, 'no way, for am I just a very dark tinge of grey.' Kettle just sighed with a resigned breath, 'to everyone else, you're as black as death. To me, I can see, that you're a lighter hue, but you're the only one that matters to.'" Joy recited perfectly, then chuckled, "When you think about it, the poem could be construed as horribly racist." "That was not the point I was trying to make, Joy." I replied wryly.

"Are you calling your own daughter a whore?" Joy smirked. "I am not saying that…" I trailed off with a sly grin, "all I am saying, is that tasting your further nethers used to be like dipping my tongue into a closed tulip, and now it is like licking a soup bowl." "Mother!" Joy gasped through a giggle, and I licked my lips in retort. She slapped my playfully, and I wrestled into her submission, before licking the soup bowl once more.

Afterward, the sweat of our lust glistened from our bodies, and the smell of it wafted pleasantly through the room. I held her, much like you are holding me. The cataclysm was subtle." I took a shuddering breath. "I remember that she turned around, and there was confusion in her eyes. I'd seen that confusion on millions of faces before, and seeing it etched upon hers was the greatest horror I had ever known.

"Mother?" She asked. "Vitanimus!" I called. "Mother?" She asked again. Her voice was changing. Oh, the fear in it. I had never heard fear like that before from her. I held her closely, desperately, and whispered my soothing words into her hear.

"Vitanimus!" I screamed again, but he would not come. It was silent outside. Deathly silent. The low rumble of revelry that had always filled the afterlife was muted to nothing. "Mother?!" She said again, and now her voice was high and panicked, like a child's voice. "It's OK," I pleaded with her, trying to keep her still, "it's OK, baby." "What's happening?!" She screamed. I didn't want to look at her anymore.

For as her voice grew small and childlike, her features grew old. Her pristine portrait withered before my eyes, stuck in its expression of primal desperation. She wrinkled and shrank, withered and curled.

Soon, she was not but skin and bones, but still alive, still horrifically alive. Her voice was that of a babe's, her mutterings were babble, but she still understood what was happening to her. I tried to comfort her, tried through tears and kisses, but she found no comfort with me. Her eyes rolled to the ceiling, her flesh flaked away, and a final questioning 'Mama?' left her lips before they peeled back.

Then, I was holding a skeleton. I looked to the window, knowing it would kill me to do it, but I had to see. Maybe some part of me thought there was still hope as long as her face never passed. It did. It stared at me with that confusion, then it faded." My breaths were labored, my chest was heaving, but no more tears fell from my eyes. My grief was dry now, and only the guilt was there to nurture it. I was not finished with my tale, but already I could feel the remaining columns beginning to fall.

One after the other, the spires crumbled, and the ones left groaned under the weight of keeping the realms separate. It did not matter. It was inevitable. "We did not know that Joy needed to be Hatred on the day of the blood corona sliver.

For when the suns moved to part again, she did not have the affinity to keep her tether. The worlds broke, heaven was emptied, and all the souls were lost to oblivion. You have seen the last memory I had with Vitanimus, so I will not recount it. It is mostly true, though my mind has addled it somewhat.

I killed him in my grief, and further formed Guilt beneath my very feet. But that was not was solidified my doom. For I went once more to the realm of my daughter, and found it to be a sterile, barren place.

What was once resplendent tropical mountains that bore waterfalls and fjords, had become desolate peaks with nothing but flat stone between them." "You don't have to continue, Petranumen." Diamond whispered, holding me tight, "I can piece-together the rest." "No." I breathed, "I must tell it." "You heard a baby's cry." Diamond muttered.

I could tell she was grieving by the shudder of her breaths, and that grief gave me strength. "I heard it on the wind, and my heart filled. I raced through the frozen effigies of her realm, not caring that everything and everyone was gone. She had been reborn. I ran for miles before I remembered who I was, then I moved the astral plane around me until I came to the spot.

It was a cave at the base of a mountain. I stepped in, and the last smile of hope I would ever wear faded from my face. The thing that bawled in the center of the cave was grey and dull. It had no color, no life, no soul. It was a mockery of Joy, a retardation of what she had been.

It looked at me without compassion, and simply cried because that was what babies were so supposed to do. It was an affectation, for it stood on two feet a second later, and laughed while it cried, experimenting with the emotion to find the most believable result.

It did not care for me at all. It walked right past me, and looked from dead eyes at the two suns. They were separate from each other, and the tether that had once held them had turned to frayed ribbons that glinted in the solar light, millions of miles away. The thing looked at the debris of its birth, and giggled.

It sounded just like her. I wanted to kill it, Diamond, and I tried. When I heard that giggle, I took the infant by its feet, and I tried to dash its brains against the rocks. Nothing. I tried to throw it from the mountaintops, I tried to bury it beneath the earth, I tried to drown it in the rivers, but it didn't care.

It just giggled, and I knew what it would become. A mask of Joy, just like Power, Greed and Corruption. As great as my grief was, I knew that it was selfish. There were millions of other grievers, and they would look to me for explanation. So, I sat upon the rocks, and I wrote the Maternal Path. It took me one night to write the fiction that would forever slander Vitanimus, and create in me a kindly matriarch for all to remember me by. It would be the last word of the Elementals, and though most would see it as the lie that it was, they would still treasure it, for this book would mark the end of our era.

And I knew that as time passed, and the story was told throughout the generations, that the word 'Elemental' would fade from memory, and 'Holy Mother' would grow in the lexicon. With a little time, my lie would become truth.

In my fevered grief, I tried to retain Joy's legacy in my new bible. I added her poetry; at least, that which I could remember. My mind had once been infinite and perfect, but it was becoming dark, and the memories were twisting. I no longer had autonomy over myself, and so the cognizant realm I had meticulously created fractured with my grief. My memories fell through the cracks of my psyche, and drained ceaselessly into the depths of Guilt.

I was becoming her, so I used an old mask as a stopgap; Corruption. I filtered the trickle of my consciousness through that realm, and its apathy kept me sane enough to finish my book. When I was done, I read the manu with grim satisfaction. A little hand touched the final page when I flipped it, and I looked into the lifeless eyes of the thing. "Mama." It said to me.

It knew me, it remembered me, but it was not her. It was a lifeless thought left to torment me. Well, I knew how to fix that. I scratched out a few lines of my bible, and printed Hatred's destiny upon them.

That thing would not emulate my daughter. I raised a podium in the deepest recesses of its mind, and I placed my lie in its center. Then I walked away as the realm changed; the mountains turning to volcanoes, the rivers turning to magma, and the grey sky turning black and acrid. When I arrived at gate to my realm, it was obstructed. The wrought-iron of Corruption's gate stood before me, and before that, the wispy beginnings of Guilt. I sprinted through it as quickly as I could, and it formed behind me, sealing me within.

I was a prisoner inside of Freedom, unable to deliver the Maternal Path to the world. I tried to create a doorway from my realm to earth, but I did not have the power; it was Vitanimus who could create tethers. So, I sat in my empty heaven, and I resigned myself to an eternity of introspection. One week of loneliness spurred my flight. I stepped from my realm, clothed myself in the armor of Corruption, then walked into oblivion.

It was hell. I saw their grey faces, and I heard their accusing screams. You killed her, you killed her, you killed her. It was my guilt telling me what I knew it my heart to be true. It ravaged me even with Corruption on, and I was near-manic with it by the time I finally reached the edge of that realm, and found the door that had formed within my newest incarnation of Guilt.

And when I opened that door, the astral plane was gone. The ordered, regimented land I had painstakingly constructed was true chaos now. My tether allowed me to walk in it, but I had no control over the thoughts that ran wild in the spaces between the realms I'd made. I tucked myself into Corruption, and went to the only place that I knew could get me back to earth. I created a door into Hatred's realm, and avoided the thing that lived there as well as I could.

I created a door into the next realm of her evolution, which was predictably, Greed. Sorrow had not yet been formed, but I could see it on the horizon. Within Greed, I found the broken remnants of the path to earth. They seemed irreparable, but I had time. It was all I had.

I fixed it as best I could, but Vitanimus's tether was not something I could duplicate. So, I made a simplified, stupid version. One that required me to leave most of myself behind. I dared not relieve myself of Corruption's armor when I had to pass back through Guilt to get home, so, Corruption was all that I brought with my soul.

And from that repaired tether, I emerged into the world as Joy had so many times before; from the water. I gave my lie to the people, then I faded into shadow. I did not know who I was, or what I was, but I had an inkling. I knew that I was in great pain, and that society and Vitanimus had been the cause of it. But I did not know Vitanimus's name any longer, so he became just 'Satan' to me, and I believed my own lie.

I did not know it was me who had told it, for the Holy Mother was someone else. For millennia I walked the earth as Corruption, a mask of myself, but with my eyes still behind it. I gave my gifts in exchange for power's children, and you can guess the significance of that, I am sure, but I was ignorant of why I did it.

The memories that stabbed me the deepest still echoed within me as Corruption, but instead of playing in my mind as thoughts, they compelled my actions like instincts. Meld with the child of power, love the child of power, destroy power with its own child.

Take the pain away. Always take the pain away, for my child should never feel pain. These were the instincts that compelled me, and they would eventually compel me to go back to where I belonged. I would travel through Fedar's gate, not knowing that I had built it a thousand, thousand lifetimes ago. Then I would come back, and I would remember. You must know that I was ashamed of what I had done, and you must understand that I tried to stay in exile, but my misery was my only company.

Inevitably, it became too much. I would slink back into Corruption, dawn her armor, endure the prison walls of Guilt, see the mockery of my daughter's consciousness, then slide blissfully into ignorance, and find someone new to love. Then, they came. They came like comets from the spiritual plane, and pierced this world before crashing upon the one below. When I investigated the wreckage, I realized what they were.

Elementals of flesh and blood, for they did not manipulate the astral plane as I had done, but pulled from it like a conduit. They manifested themselves from Vitanimus's descendants, and I thought the world would be inundated with the new gods, as Vitanimus had been prolific, but it was not so. What had once been a constant of old times, was now an anomaly, a happenstance of chance that I do not know the reason of. The only way I can think to explain it, is with the analogy of a broken clock.

The second hand belongs to the physical plane, the minute hand belongs to the astral plane, and the hour hand belongs to the spiritual plane.

The return of the Elementals is marked when the hands overlap, but this clock cannot be timed, for the mechanism runs fast and slow, and sometimes in sync.

I found it strange that the Heat Bringer came as it did, for it had been no more than a bastardization of a pure Elemental spirit. Why had water not returned? I pondered for an explanation, but I could not find one. The it came to me, and the realization stuck me to my core. Somewhere in the spiritual cosmos, someone was giving me a second chance. I would not waste the opportunity." I was numb. I could not feel Diamond's body pressed to mine, but I knew it was there.

I could not hear her soothing whispers, though I know she uttered them. I could not smell her sweat-kissed flesh, nor taste her flavor in my mouth. I could not even see my hand before me. Everything was black, but I was not yet in damnation. I was passing through what was left of Corruption, floating and falling at the same time. I turned to my left, and saw a single spire in the distance. The last support that held the ceiling from the floor, and there were deep fractal cracks lining jaggedly across its surface.

A single beam of chromatic light shined through the black above, bathed the spire in whites and greys, then died in the black below. For everything was blackness now. It had overtaken me, but I would finish my tale. Someone needed to tell my truth before the end.

I knew I was still in bed with Diamond, and I sensed her agitation. I suspected that she was begging me to come back to her, and that suspicion gave me comfort. It was nice to be wanted. I angled my face over my shoulder, and spoke to the blackness there.

I hoped I was connecting eyes with Diamond, but it was more than likely I was staring madly off into space. That idea caused me to smile, and my smile broadened when I thought of Diamond's alarm at seeing my manic grin.

Soon, I was giggling like an idiot, and recanting the end of my story. "I had a great affinity for the Earth Former spirit. If I melded with the Earth Former, and he or she bound with the Life Giver, then that binding would create a tethering of three knots.

And from that union of Elemental spirits, another would be created. As had been the genesis of Joy, so would be my rebirth, for I would take power's womb one last time, but not as Corruption. It would be my soul that came forth; wholly me. A new Creator born to the world, but with my infinite mind. I would have the Life Giver lash the Heat Bringer's spirit to the astral suns upon the next blood corona sliver, and create a bridge between planes once again; a permanent bridge, for there would be no question of the Heat Bringer's affinity.

I would once again become tethered to the astral plane, and regain my title as caretaker of heaven. I would fix it. I would fix all of it. But I could only travel to earth as Corruption, and in that form, I was stupid. I forgot my purpose, and acted upon instinct. But I had time. Oh, I had eons and eons of tortuous time to stab blindly into the void until I found her: Flora Autumnsong; a princess of power with the blood of Vitanimus.

Serendipity. Through Corruption, I recognized the importance of it, though I did not know why it was important.

It did not matter, for once Corruption had her prey, she never let go. I gave Flora the means to bear one child, but only when I wanted her to conceive. I plotted tirelessly, constantly battling my own stupidity, fighting the infernal instincts Corruption had to tear down society, and take the pain away. But it worked. I waited the centuries, and when the time was right, I gave Flora her child, the child of power, and the Earth Former.

My salvation. I did not anticipate how strong Willowbud would be. She resisted me throughout her childhood, and for years during her banishment. I loved her as I loved all whose minds I touch, and seeing her endure such pain tortured me. You cannot imagine my ecstasy when she finally accepted me into her mind. From there, I was aimless and directionless, without purpose or reason. I was simply Corruption, then, I was not. Willowbud expelled me, and sent me screaming back into the astral plane.

I was assaulted nakedly by Guilt, and the exposure was mortal. Corruption began to disintegrate, and the supports I had meticulously created to keep oblivion at bay, began to crumble. It was only a matter of time, and I knew it. I knew Willowbud was my last chance, so I charged back into fray, dealing myself incalculable damage in the process. I found Willowbud, and I forced myself back into her. I was stupid and directionless again, solely Corruption once again, but then… then I saw him, and those scars that had become Corruption's instincts compelled her to act for my purpose.

My hate and love for Vitanimus filtered into Corruption, but Willowbud's attraction to Brandon made the former predominant. She fell in love with him; I had succeeded. After epochs of waiting, failing and suffering, I had done it. Then you and your mother came, and it all was for not. So many years and so many lives, all wasted. But it does not matter. None of it ever has." I stared sightlessly into the black, and it stared back. It whispered of my regrets, and I felt the memories come back to me, unbidden, unchained, here to torture my mind until I finally lost it.

All those people I had made betray themselves, all those lives I had ruined, all the pain I caused in attempt to numb it. Willowbud was just the last in a long line that stretched back before history, and before that, there was Vitanimus, and Joy.

"Before the cognizant winds became hostile, we did not fear death." I whispered, "For we knew the mind would carry our soul on forever, to exist in harmony with those still living. Why do we fear it now, Diamond? Is it because of the uncertainty? I think not. I think it is the opposite. I think that deep down, we all know that the death of our minds is the end of us.

There is nothing after the end of cognizance, for the spirits we carry are not us. We are just the vessels of experience, meant to be cast aside like the masks I once wore. We are as lifeless to them as Sentients! Where do they go?

Why do they go? The question ravaged Vitanimus unto his dying breath, but I know the answer! They abandon us, Diamond, because we are not worth saving!" I raged against my coming doom, exalting in the final catharsis before I forever became my darkness.

Maybe I had always been it. Maybe I was just coming home. But I knew that was not so, for I had tasted this destiny through the filter of Corruption, and even wearing the embodiment of apathy, it was hell. No hope, no salvation, no purpose. Only regrets and the knowledge of what could have been. But what could have been was never to be, not for me. Never for me. I did not accept my fate, but surrendered to it.

Every heartbeat was an eternity, every breath was an ocean. These were my last moments as me, and I wish I could say I took them with dignity, but I did not.

My eyes widened horror, my mouth went dry, my belly sank as my heart rose. My throat closed around the scream I wanted to utter, and I flailed in the void, desperate, panicked, mindless. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Part Five: Fly Away BRANDON The great mushroom cloud lit like the sun was beneath it, the column head darkening in the relative luminance of its base.

"Julia." I muttered. "Aye." Arby concurred stepping beside me. The sapphire light illuminated the entire horizon. It faded, then showed again, only this time the horizon had been cut sharply in half by an immense shadow. "Willowbud." I whispered. She was alive. A wave of relief washed over me, then the tide receded with the realization of what was happening. "Aye." Arby concurred again, smoking his pipe. The citizens of Towerhead quickly lost their interest in me, and rushed over to the hilltop to watch the distant battle of gods.

From our vantage point, it looked more like a conflict of the elements than of two teenage girls. "I hope you're not planning on charging in there." Arby said, looking up at me. "I need to do something!" I insisted. "Like…?" Arby scoffed, "You can't stop them, Brandon. The best thing that can happen now, is for them to kill each other." Flashes of sapphire met geometric shadows. The blue melted into the black, then the black rapidly changed shape, adjusting every-which way to defend against the onslaught.

Even from this great distance, I could tell Willowbud didn't have a chance. "We have to stop this!" I said to the dwarf, my voice a little too high for my liking, "You have to help me!" "I don't have to do a damn thing." Arby replied easily.

"This as much your fault as it is mine!" I growled. "And I accept my share of the blame." "I guess melting cities isn't anything new to you." I snapped. He smiled mildly up at me. "Cities come and go, but Sentients never die. I would sacrifice entire kingdoms to end Corruption." Arby replied, "One Earth Former isn't even a consideration in the grand scheme of things." "You're a piece of shit." "People are always so quick to admonish me." Arby chuckled around his pipe, "They call me a monster, a murderer, and a genocidal maniac, but where did Julia's mercy get her?" "I don't need you, old man, and you can't stop me." I said, but my feet stayed planted.

What could I do? What could I possibly say to Julia that would stop her? So, I know Willowbud killed the love of your life, and I know you just blew up a whole city in your grief, but could you, you know… let bygones be bygones? She was more likely to kill me in her rage than listen to a word I had to say. I could feel the limitless power running through my veins, but it was the power to create, and she was the antithesis of that.

But… I couldn't just let Willowbud die, could I? Shouldn't I be compelled into action without hesitation? Isn't that what gods did? Light clashed with dark again and again, the blue fire melting through the shadows, the thunder rolling across the hills with each collision of the elements.

The shadows were getting smaller, melting faster, losing their rigidity. I just stood and watched. Arby studied me for a moment, then shook his head, and put a hand on my shoulder. "You weren't made for this kind of stuff, boy." Arby sighed, "You're like Trenok that way.

Maybe all Life Givers are. Find a corner of the world to make your little piece of paradise, and leave the rest alone." He slid his hand from me, the disappointment evident in his touch, and he walked away. "I loved her once." I said quietly, not sure if I was saying it to him. "No, you didn't." Arby said over his shoulder, "If you really did, we wouldn't be talking." Then he was gone, disappeared into his inn to crawl into a bottle.

Bianca and the other Ofanians were preparing themselves for departure, pointedly ignoring the war on the horizon. They wanted nothing to do with it, and I couldn't blame them. I turned back, watching numbly as light met shadow over and over.

One light shown brighter than ever, then dimmed behind the diminishing curtain of the black cloud. The accompanying roll of thunder echoed through the hills, then there was nothing. No light, no shadow, no sound. The mushroom cloud lost its shape before the setting sun, becoming a draw-out column that disappeared into the jet stream above.

It was no longer black, but a deep violet that blazed red at the edges, and blue at the bottom. I felt a small hand slide into mine, and a familiar head rest on my shoulder. Angela and I didn't speak, but just stared silently across the plane. "I'm sorry, Brandon." Angela said softly. "You told me I was a coward for abandoning her, remember?" I said, wiping the tears from my cheeks, "What does that make me now?" "I said that when I was trying to keep everything from falling apart." Angela replied, "I think it's safe to say that we're past that now.

Going in there wouldn't have been bravery; it would've been stupid." "Maybe." I said, and the silence returned between us, before I broke it, "I could've done more for her." "Maybe." Angela answered, and reestablished the silence, before she broke it, "Mom and Dad have decided that you might not be the devil's bastard." "I kind of feel like it though." I muttered.

"Yeah…" Angela sighed, "so do I." I put my arm around her and pulled her close, and she put her face in my chest, and returned the embrace. "I don't want to stay here." Angela murmured. "Me neither." "Let's go to Arbortus and fix Passion's womb like we promised Julia." Angela said, "We can wait until Diamond comes back from Chaos, then you can tether her.

I can't think of a better replacement." "Diamond can't be tethered." I replied, "I saved her body in the roots of the tree." "Oh." Angela muttered, "Then we need to find a new Passion." "I guess." I frowned.

I didn't want to fix the archaic creations of Life Givers past; I wanted to make something of my own. A little piece of paradise to leave the world. I could smell the tinge of rot in the air, blowing from the east. Arbortus was as full of death as Drastin was, and it turned my stomach over. Maybe it had stood for too long. Maybe it was time for something else to take its place.

I looked back across Drastinar's rolling hills, to the shadowed plateau rimming the Ardeni Bay. Maybe Julia had done exactly as she was supposed to. At least, that was the only positive way I could spin this. Time would tell if the Heat Bringer's destruction was a cleansing fire, or a terrible tragedy, but I would be long dead before history could make the judgement.

I hoped Diamond found Julia before she succumbed to her grief, and that the two of them would find some corner of the world with which to live out there days in peace and whatever happiness they could find. For I was sure Julia was done with divinity, and I doubted the world would ever see her again. I know I never wanted to. "Arbortus will stand for a while." I said to Angela, "We don't need to rush.

Let's just… let's just get the fuck out of here." Angela's smile lit up her face, "Fuck the world, right?" She grinned. "Fuck 'em." I laughed with her. I extended my hand, and created a massive eagle with just a thought. The great avian was golden brown, and had eyes glowing white with my power. It bowed its head before Angela and me, and I guided my sister toward it to step gingerly over the beast's neck, and straddle it at the nape. She looked back at me with a wonderous beam that could've outshined the sun, a twinkle of excitement rimming the edge of her pale blue eyes.

"Where are we going?" She asked. "Ofan." I said, getting behind her, "Bianca's decided to repopulate her clan, and she needs my help to do it." "What a great sacrifice you're making for her. I take it were not going to be monogamous?" Angela nestled her plump backside into my crotch, and twerked it subtly, her awed smile turning to wicked grin over her left shoulder.

"Not a fucking chance." I grinned back, taking her by the hips, and sneaking my fingers between her spread legs as she carefully hiked up the front of her dress. A lecherous secret past between our eyes, and I watched her struggle to keep that secret when I entered her.

"I heard there's centaurs in those mountains." Angela winked at me, her pale face flushing with her lust, "Maybe I'll go horseback riding while you're playing with the birds." "Only if I get to watch." I grinned back. Mom and Dad emerged from Arby's inn, their jaws dropping at the sight of our steed. Angela and I waved to them, and they dumbly waved back. Then I looked to Bianca, and she nodded, her few dozen remaining warriors standing at the ready.

With nothing but a mental command, I launched us into the air. Angela squealed her exhilaration, her shoulder pinching back, her hair blowing into my face.

I looked behind me to see Towerhead, the remnants of Drastin, and the browning canopy of Arbortus all grow small beneath us. Then I turned away from my past, and faced the beautiful portrait of my future, staring back over a delicate collar with love in her eyes, and lust on her pale lips. I met those lips, and pulled her to me, hiking up her skirt and finding her heat. We made love as we soared through the air, and disappeared from the mess we'd left for the world.

Fuck 'em. JUSTINA I'd always had a fantasy of being captured by wild tribesmen. The kind of jungle-dwellers with bones sticking through their septum, and ritualistic scarification dotting their cheeks. The fantasy begins with me acting as a biologist trying to find new species in a forgotten rainforest, and escalates when said tribesmen capture me, tie me to a pole, and haul me through the brush.

Obviously, the fantasy ends with them ravaging me every-which way, then succumbing to my prowess, proclaiming me as their tribal god, adorning me with gems and gold, and sacrificing male virgins to me every night. That fantasy had become a reality, only instead of well-endowed tribesmen, it was black-cloaked Breytans, and instead of making me a sexual goddess, I was made prisoner of their… actually, 'sexual goddess' was a good deion of Julia. I just wasn't sure if I'd get to her in one piece.

"We should kill her and be done with it!" one of Jade's captains snapped. "She has been granted eminent distinction by His Holiness, and we have no quarrel with him." Jade replied beside me. "He is dead!" the captain insisted. "And her title is lifelong." Jade sounded weary, "She is a political prisoner, Mira, and we do not have the right to pass judgement." "Ten dead, and seven wounded due to her treachery!" Mira growled, "We gave her refuge in our hall, and she repaid us with betrayal!" "It is not betrayal if you never claimed allegiance." Jade sighed, "Astrid was her friend, and she acted bravely for her." Jade looked down at me, "It is honorable, but it was foolish.

Astrid will succumb to her wounds, and now her song bears a shameful ending. I do not believe you did her a favor." Jade inspected the gash in my side. It had been stitched and bound by a very angry-looking Breytan surgeon, who I noted did not use disinfectant or anesthetic on me. I prayed to gods I didn't believe in that it would not become infected.

"I couldn't just do nothing." I groaned, my wrists and ankles numb above my binds. "I understand." Jade smiled at me. "We left that temple with two-hundred heads!" Mira was apparently not done, "We are one hundred and forty-eight now!

What kind of High Guard-" "We can make it one hundred and forty-seven, Captain Mira Ling." Jade said, stopping abruptly, and turning on her heel. Mira had to stumble to avoid running into her High Guard, and ended up a breath away from kissing her. Their eyes stayed glued, both women remarkably expressionless save for the fire behind their lenses. Mira broke with a grunt, bowed, and marched ahead. Jade eased her hand of the hilt of her katana, which she carried across her back alongside Astrid's massive great-sword.

"I must return it to Freydis Skyborne with my condolences." Jade said when I asked her. "But you're at war with Iona. How can you give them such a weapon?" "It is just a sword, Your Eminence." Jade chuckled, "A good one, yes, but it was the bearer who made the magic happen. The sword of Iona is legendary because the High Guard of Iona is legendary." "Oh." I muttered, not daring to mention that Freydis Skyborne was more than likely part of the ash cloud above us.

I liked Jade, and I got the feeling that she liked me, but that didn't make me any less terrified of her. She was a pleasant, polite woman, and she'd ordered the death of her oldest friend without a second thought. I didn't doubt she'd skin me alive with a polite smile on her face if Julia ordered it. I just hoped Julia would be merciful.

She had no reason to hate me, unless Lucilla had spilled the beans to her. I prayed that Willowbud had killed Lucilla before that happened, then I prayed that Julia had killed Willowbud. For if Willowbud was vaporized in Julia's fire, then so was Corruption, and I would never have to face a black-eyed Julia Gendian. Then, being skinned alive would be a mercy. TERA I was on the outskirts of what used to be Drastin, and the sun was setting. The great cloud had stretched and bent with the wind, and now trailed weakly into the stratosphere, dispersing and losing its color.

Its base still hung overhead, but it was no longer churning and self-consuming; it was just a cloud now. The very edge of Drastin had fared much better than the rest of it. Julia's fireball hadn't extended all the way to the eastern wall, and though the buildings were in bad shape, they weren't vaporized or melted. Some had toppled, some had crumbled, and all had lost their windows, but from their bowels, survivors came.

They were in terrible shape. I didn't see a single person that wasn't sporting some kind of injury, and all of them had the same haunted look in their eyes. I didn't think any of them recognized me, which I was grateful for. I had a feeling that Creators weren't going to be very popular anymore, and those who associated with them would be even less so.

Of course, there was only one Creator left, and she was the Destroyer. I wasn't surprised that Willowbud had survived, nor was I surprised that she'd attempt a foolhardy battle with Julia.

I was surprised at how bad I felt over her loss. She'd been a constant source of fear and anxiety in my life, but I had to admit, I did like her. I liked Night Eyes, anyway. I guess she reminded me of my youth, when drugs, gangs, and murder were synonyms for 'fun, friends, and money.' Still, her death was worth it if Corruption was dead. Maybe if I had leaned on my old instincts, I would've tried to convince Julia to do it earlier. But I'd let family get in the way, and now my family was gone.

No, she's still alive! I pushed through the exodus of survivors, the ash that covered them brushing off on to me. I climbed the rubble that had made a dead end of main street, and my jaw dropped. Beyond the row of buildings beside me, there was nothing. Miles and miles of black nothing. My safehouse was about three miles into the nothing, next to a whole lot of more nothing. Just… nothing. My throat threatened to close, and I willed the thoughts from my mind.

She was alive. She had to be. I slid down the rubble, and began my trek through the wastes. My bare feet met smooth glass, and my naked flesh was kissed with the summer evening wind. The great cloud above began to dissipate, opening holes with which to view the stars. I'd never seen so many over Drastin before.

Soon, the summer winds pushed the cloud over the bay, and the moon shined high and full overhead. It reflected against the black glass, igniting the world in cool lunar luminance. The stars speckled the lustrous surface with their light, creating a celestial blanket of the earth. It was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever seen, and it pained me that I was seeing it alone.

No… no, I wasn't alone. A great, hunched beast lumbered across the glass, its head bowed, its snout almost pressed to the glass. Against all odds, Ursa the bear had made it.

She strode over to me, sniffing me curiously, then dropping in submission. "If you can survive out here, then Justina surely can." I smiled, and tousled the silvery mane of the beast.

It groaned, and I grimaced when I noticed that half of its hide had been burnt away. Remarkably, it had already scarred, leaving no open wounds to get infected. I guess being a creation of a god had its perks. Ursa brought her enormous snout into my hair, and gave it a violent snort, then offered a low, content growl. "You've been looking for her too, huh?" I said softly, petting the side of her that could still feel, "I bet I smell a lot like her.

Close enough, right? The search is over, time for nap." Ursa grunted in agreement. I grinned at the expressiveness of the beast, then my smile faded. Ursa hadn't been sniffing me out; Ursa had been sniffing the ground. "Yeah…" I mused quietly, "I bet I smell just like her…" I walked behind Ursa, sniffing as I went. I walked a hundred yards before my nostrils caught it.

I dropped to a squat, and touched a finger to the moonlit glass. Blood. Purple blood. This time, I let my breath catch in my throat, and the relief wash over me. I'd been pretending for hours, holding on by a thread of hope, but I never really believed. But it was true now, unequivocally true. She was still alive. Hurt, but alive. I rushed over to Ursa, threw myself across her back, and compelled the beast to move.

She groaned reluctantly to her feet, then turned around, and continued her hunt for the woman she'd been born for. I'm coming, baby. Hold on. JULIA She is standing with me atop a mountain. The sky is pale blue up here, and the clouds form a plush rug beneath us. Her porcelain face is flushed, and her nose is red and running. She is adorned with the finest furs the empire has to offer, and in typical fashion, she has wasted their utility by wearing a skimpy dress with a plunging neckline that she insists on exposing.

"Fuck snow." Lucilla proclaims, sniffling. She turns to me, "How are you fine with this?" "I dress for it." I smirk, eyeing her cleavage. I'm glad for an excuse to do so, though I'm not sure if I even know it. I've buried my attraction down so deep that I've convinced myself it's not there.

"You have the luxury of doing so." Lucilla snapped, "As royalty, I have a reputation to uphold." "To whom?" I asked with raised eyebrows, looking around, "The only people here are me, Bragdian, Fentari, and Judicai," I gestured to our escort and coachman, "and if I'm not mistaken, that means I'm the only one here you haven't bedded." "Yet." Lucilla grins at me. I know she's jesting, but I can't shake the feeling that she'd lie with me just out curiosity alone.

The thought breaches my ardent self-denial, and I feel a very real desire. I quell it immediately, then pretend it never happened. "Is that Terondia?" I ask, pointing to a glint in the distance. It's barely a shape at all, more reflected light than anything else, but it is unmistakably manmade. "Yes, that's the palace spire." Lucilla says with a curled lip, "I haven't been there since Mother died." Lucilla scowl deepens when she sees my pitying expression, "Don't give me that fucking look!

I didn't even know her." She sighs, "I don't even know him, really." I rest a mitten-clad hand on her shoulder, which she'd kept infuriatingly bare. She wraps her arm around me, and our heads rest against each other's. I dare to warm myself just a little more, and I feel Lucilla nestle her exposed parts into the wool of my habit. "Is it bad that I wish he would die?" Lucilla asks quietly.

"Yes." I mutter. "Is wishing that the worst thing I've ever done?" "If you mean it in your heart, then yes, it is." I reply. Our breath puffs from our mouths, and disperses in the sun.

The sound of Fentari and Judicai retrofitting the carriage with sled blades rings sharply through the thin air, and echoes down the mountainside. "I still wish it." Lucilla barely says, "I don't care if it damns me, I still wish it." "You won't be punished in damnation for such an ill." I reply, "You'll be punished here. When he is gone, you will regret this moment, I assure you." "Shit, I'm sorry, Julia." Lucilla sighs, pulling me tighter into her embrace, "I don't know why I always forget." "Because we're family." I say, smiling up at her, "And the void isn't so obvious when there's someone there to fill it." I expect Lucilla's snark, but I am instead greeted by a brilliant smile.

A twinkle shines from one sapphire eye, and she actually flushes. She wraps both arms around me, and hugs me until I can hardly breathe. "You're never fucking leaving me, Julia." Lucilla says into my hair, "Never." The glass obsidian shimmered with moonlight, creating an aura of ethereal white like luminous fog.

My feet dragged across its surface, wet with my blood. My back was numb from skin to muscle, and screaming from muscle to bone. I could not keep it upright. The wound went from my left shoulder to my right hip, and it was mortal, I knew.

The blood wetted by glutes, the backs of my thighs, knees, and calves, and formed footprints behind me. Ahead of me, the remnants of Brandon's tree stood from the plane, a charred monolith. "You left me, Lucilla." I whispered to the void, my squelching feet keeping better rhythm than my lumbering heart, "You always were a hypocrite." My mouth was so dry, my legs were so sore, my back ached terribly where it wasn't clenching in agony. "Diamond, Lucilla, God.

Diamond, Lucilla, God. Diamond, Diamond, Diamond…" I said her name repeatedly, trying to make my mouth spur my spent body and worn mind. My spirit barely held, and I could practically feel it ebbing from me. I was dying, and I was glad of it. I just needed to know. I just needed to see her face before I went, dead or alive. It would surely be the last I ever saw of it, for Diamond's soul belonged to heaven, and mine belonged elsewhere. Maybe I was already there.

Was hell endlessly enduring my last moments, limping to a destination I would never reach, tormented by the fevered recollections of my mind? No moment of judgement, no standing before Satan and bowing my head before the sentence; only loneliness on a beautiful night. I sagged to my knees, then to my elbows, then to my face. The glossy surface was pleasantly cool, and the summer wind was pleasantly warm.

Consciousness ebbed from me, coming back only to view the blurred nightscape without processing it. The moon lit a shimmering path.

The stars twinkled above and beside me. A foot. A hand. Scarlett hair, black antler, emerald eyes. She mouthed something, but I could not hear it. It didn't matter. I smiled up at her, and thanked the Holy Mother for this one last gift. Then, I faded away. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Postlude: Triple Knot DIAMOND My head felt like it was splitting, but not from fever, nor from concussion, but because there was someone in it.

Why do you preserve me? Petranumen asked from my astral realm, I am too vast for your mind, Diamond, even with the remnants of your mother's realm. It is no use. I ignored her. Mom was slung across my shoulders, and I was racing with fiery lungs across the glassy plateau. I just needed to get to Brandon's tree, and she'd be better. I'd plug her into the roots I'd come out of, and the remnants of the tree's lifeforce would be enough to heal her. It had to be.

You will not get there in time. Petranumen sounded regretful, I am sorry. What do you know about it?! I snapped. Her breath rattles with death, and you are a mile away.

You don't know! I know. Her voice was faint, and her thoughts were sluggish in my mind. My own stream of consciousness seemed to have slowed to a crawl. I had expert medical knowledge somewhere in me, but I just… couldn't… remember it… I slowed to walk, my diaphragm heaving. I felt something wet splatter on my feet, and I looked down to see crimson shining from my toes.

It hadn't come from Mom. I sniffled, and my sinuses were filled with iron. You cannot hold me, Diamond. Petranumen said, Your brain will soon burst with the effort.

I tried to ignore the astral god, and unshouldered my mother, laying her softly on the glassed earth. Her emerald eyes were glazed, her complexion was deathly pale, and her flesh was so cold.

Her breaths grated from her lungs, each one a horrendous labor for her. I didn't know how many more she was willing to take. Her mind was somewhere else now, and her expression looked peaceful, but I would not let her go into that blissful oblivion.

Through the molasses of my conscious, an idea began to form. You can save her. I thought. I cannot. You can bind with her. Impossible. You're an Elemental; you have the power. I do not love your mother. But I do. I replied, brushing blood-plastered bangs from Mom's face, I love her, she loves me, and she love you, Holy Mother.

A tether of three knots, just like you planned. Unrequited love does not make a bond. Petranumen answered. I nodded, not responding. Mom's breaths were guttural noises, more liquid than air, bubbling pink from her red lips. A drop of blood fell from my nostril, and splashed across her apple cheek. She didn't even flinch, but just stared through me. She can see me now. Petranumen said, Her mind is carrying her away.

Does she know you? I asked, hoping through the pain that Mom would find some solace in seeing the face of her Holy Mother. She… she is just confused, Diamond. I am sorry. Petranumen responded. Mom's breath rattled again, and the pink foam at her mouth spilled from the corners. Then, her eyes suddenly cleared, and darted right to mine. A smile breached her face, and I smiled back in turn, wiping the tears from my eyes.

She mouthed something. I leaned forward. Her lips were at my ear, and from them, I heard one word, sung from her dying breath with all the love she had. "Corruption." She mouthed it, not giving voice to the word, but saying it with the clicks of her tongue and throat. I eased back, the molasses of my mind turning, the horror and pain dripping within me. Then, the resolution. For I was the Untethered One, and the Holy Mother had no autonomy over my mind.

She was a guest in it, but I was the master. What are you doing?! Petranumen screamed.

I'm sorry. I replied, and I was, for tears streamed down my cheeks, and shame squeezed my chest, but I did it anyway. Stop! Oh Diamond, Stop! STOP! Petranumen pleaded. She rushed over to my gate and tried to hold it fast, her muscles tensing against the wrought iron, her pale body poised to hold her ground forever.

My mind can't hold you, Petranumen; you said it yourself. Is has to be done. I couldn't believe I was thinking those words; I couldn't believe I could be so callous. Petranumen looked at my astral figure with equal disbelief. Her pathetic position and pleading features should have given me pause, and the fact that I loved her a little should've stayed me, but it didn't.

The gates began to open, and Petranumen wrenched herself against them. There's another way, I know there is! She screamed. You can't lie to me.

Not here. I said sadly. The gates parted with screech of metal, and Petranumen was forced backward, her heels digging into the soil. She's dead, Diamond! You can't help her! I have to try. The gates opened more. Petranumen's entire body trembled, her arms barely staying locked at the elbows.

DON'T DO IT! Petranumen shrieked, and I could hear the desperation in it, high and terrified. A mortal fear, the kind that takes over the mind until there is nothing left of the person it occupies. Only the hope of my compassion kept it from owning Petranumen.

I stripped her of that hope. The gate flung open, Petranumen's arms shot from her side, and she was thrown to her back. A horrible sound infiltrated my realm. The sound of miserable groans, tortured screams and discordant wails, all forming a crescendo that grew louder and louder, until its manic tones infected the wind of my realm.

Petranumen scrambled and her hands and knees, crawling away like a crazed animal. They came. Her guilt infiltrated my realm, the ghosts of her conscious bursting through my gate like a horde of the damned; faces of Joy and Vitanimus, of Willowbud and Aunt Lucilla, of thousand more, all wearing that horrible accusation on their grey faces. They flooded into my mind, steady and inevitable. They cut off Petranumen at every turn, but still she fled, screaming and begging me. She was surrounded.

She turned to me then, and I could see true horror in her eyes, the realization that her greatest fear had come to fruition, and it was worse than her darkest musings could prepare her for. Diamond? She asked, her voice high and small, a drip of water in a dark well. I never got to answer her final plea.

The horde converged on her, and she screeched, a sound like an animal dying in the night, the sound my mother had made when the Heat Bringer cooked her alive.

Now, I was the Heat Bringer. Petranumen's white hair flailed in the middle of it all, her hands clawing upward to breach the wave, the fingers clenched in horrible agony. They tore her limb from limb. All the memories she cherished, all the moments that defined her, all the emotions that she expressed, all were ripped away and blackened before her disbelieving eyes.

Her horrible shrieks reached a shrill crescendo, then dwindled to anguished wails, then died to nothing. I was relieved. The great and beautiful Petranumen, Elemental of Earth, God of the astral plane, Holy Mother of the Maternal Path, was gone. Not dead, for death would've been a mercy. Distantly, I heard a great boom, and I felt the tremors beneath my astral soles.

The final spire had collapsed. The grey mass of Guilt filtered away, leaving a shape where Petranumen had once been. The shape stretched languidly, black limbs reaching for the heavens, black hair trailing behind a face that brimmed with amusement. The realm of Corruption was gone, but the Sentient herself still existed, worn as armor by Petranumen when I dragged her weak body through the abyss of guilt.

But this was not just the mask and armor; this was the living corpse of the Holy Mother, the Elemental soul without the person. Everything else had been stripped away, save for the one part my Mom truly loved; not as an abstract concept of God, but an intimate, desperate love. Hello. She said in her even drawl. She didn't know who I was, nor did she seem to care. She regarded her surroundings with disinterest, then turned back to me.

You are not someone that I can love. You have no darkness. But I do, I whispered, for I killed something beautiful. Your confession brings it to light. To you, I confess. I said, But the one I love the most will never know of it, for the truth would break her.

Corruption tilted her head, eyeing the astral sky as she pondered that. Then she smiled broadly, and stepped toward me. I did not back away, nor cringe from her. I looked her into my arms, slid my hand into her hair, and accepted to her kiss. My physical lips pressed to Mom's, and I stared into her fading emeralds. They dwindled before the greater light of the moon, faded to a dull shade, then closed.

Her breath died in my mouth, and her heart faded beneath my resting palm. I breathed into her. Her eyes flashed open, her lungs gasped, her heart thundered alive. The world ignited.

Mom's flame blasted from her flesh, shot into an orb around us, then tunneled into a great vortex. I felt the heat on my flesh, but it did not burn me. It caressed me, tickled me, and promised me that I would never know its pain.

Mom shot upright, and took me in her arms, her eyes wide above our kiss. They were black eyes. So were mine. The fire around us burned black, and the patterns that blazed from my olive flesh were the same designs that had decorated Aunt Lucilla, but instead of white, the intricate swooshes and flaming knots smoldered like molten obsidian. And I was not the only Bound One, for as Mom's back stitched together beneath my palms, her flesh became patterned.

The soul of an Elemental had been bound with another, so they marked each other as Petranumen and Vitanimus had done millions of years ago, and from their joining, they created another. Me. The clockwork of the universe was forced into synchronization, and the hands aligned to deliver the fourth Creator to this world. I felt the moisture in the air, the rivulets of sweat that rolled down my flesh, the whisper of the sea from the distant bay. A great rush of water shot from the aquifers below, and married itself to the vortex of flame, creating a roiling cloud of black steam that hissed and popped around us.

The patterns that formed across my mother were of waves, ripples, droplets and rivers; flowing and intricate like the designs on my flesh, impossibly detailed, and black. The corrupted shell of Petranumen was the third Bound One, and she tinged our bodily patterns to her hue, tattooed herself to our minds, and joined our souls. There would be no saving us from her, no guilt to wrench away the meld.

She was us, and we were her. The vortex of elements dwindled, and left Mom and me staring at each other, black steam rising from our renewed flesh, black eyes staring intently, lovingly. I giggled, and a gout of black Corruption shot from my lungs, and into the air. Mom laughed with me, her joy singing high, sweet and sonorous, but tinged with something terrible.

Just like mine. Our hands trailed over the patterns we'd made upon each other, and the caresses we delivered were affectionate and possessive, loving and cruel. Our red lips did not smile at each other with kindness, but with predation, with a desire to ruin. To corrupt. When I looked at her, I saw the scars of her past plain as day, etched across her psyche like a defaced painting. It was beautiful. I wanted the world to be beautiful like that. "Aunt Lucilla is being raped in hell, Mommy." I sniggered on her lips.

"Are you jealous of her?" Mom grinned back, sinking her fingers into the fat of my ass, and parting my cheeks. Our cocks squished against each other, oozing and throbbing, aching with the terrible perversions our eyes whispered to each other. "Yes." I hissed, and she did what she does best.

Our bodies writhed in the moonlight, moving with beautiful grace and terrible purpose. We made love as torturers, and delighted in the pain we endured and inflicted upon each other. Our hands strangled, our teeth bit, and our voices carried from our devouring mouths, echoed across the glass remnants of Drastin, and died in the still night air.

If anyone heard it, they would be wise to fear it. Run, hide, and cower. Find a hole within the earth to burrow, and wait out the coming storm. Drastin was just the beginning.

End of Book Two Author's note Well, that was a bitch to write. Every successive chapter of this second book was more difficult to author than the last, and this one was the worst by far. That's not to say I didn't enjoy it, as I wouldn't spend so much time and effort on something I hated, but it was draining.

But the hard part is over, and it's smooth sailing from here on out. All the great revelations of the story have come to pass, and the table is set for the final book. I apologize in retrospect for making Petranumen's story 20,000 words long, but I didn't want to turn her tale into a simple recounting, and ruin several chapters-worth of set up. From the beginning of this series, I wanted to create characters who were not wholly bad or good. I did that by building them from their flaws.

Brandon is kind of stupid, not very brave, and thinks with his dick. Julia is closed-minded, irreparably damaged, and prone to great violence and cruelty. Angela is naive and single-minded, Lucilla is selfish and amoral, Justina is cowardly and socially weak, and Astrid is strong-headed and ambitious. If there is one person in this story who is without major flaw, it is Tera, and that is because she is the only real adult.

Everyone else is a teenager, and most of us can look back at our teenage selves and realize we weren't yet developed. This book highlighted the good in many of the characters, as all of the aforementioned characters are mostly good people, but ultimately, their flaws are what drive the plot, as is often the case in life itself.

You probably noticed that I didn't mention Willowbud, and that's because we haven't really met Willowbud yet. You might say, "White Walls, Willowbud was herself in the third chapter!" and you would only be half-right. That Willowbud you met had resigned herself to becoming a slave, because she had nowhere else to turn. If Astrid Skyborne wasn't also in that cage, you can bet Willowbud would never have freed herself. We'll explore that later in the next chapter The Creators.

In closing, I'd like to thank two readers who've been very supportive. Thepost, who's written some wonderful comments, and is a good author himself (check him out), and Chimera Love Me, who has been supportive of my work for over a year now, dating all the way back to God is a Slut, my second series.

I write for myself; it's an inherently selfish process, but getting the feedback of fans is what pushes me to write when I don't feel like it, so from the bottom of my heart, thank you, and all readers who have left words of encouragement or critique. Book Three of The Creators will be out… soon.

I hesitate to give a date, because it's hard to tell. The most time I'll put between chapters is a month, though I suspect the first three chapters of Book Three will be shorter than any of the chapters of Book Two. We will see. Once again, thank you all, and I hope you've enjoyed Book Two of The Creators. It is my proudest achievement to date.